When a Crisis Becomes Chronic: Tell a Better Story

by / Newsroom Ink on 11/12/2010
Imperial Explosion

Eight days after John Sheptor became president and CEO of Imperial Sugar, disaster struck the company. Photo: Imperial Sugar News

by Ed Lallo, Newsroom Ink

Eight days after John Sheptor became president and CEO of Imperial Sugar, disaster struck the company.

On the evening of February 7, 2008, the new CEO toured the Port Wentworth, Ga refinery; meeting with employees in the 100-year-old facility. A little after 7 p.m., a series of explosions ripped through the refinery –killing 14 employees, severely injuring others and nearly costing Sheptor his life. The tragic events of that evening set in motion two years of corporate turmoil, which came close to destroying Imperial Sugar.

John C. Sheptor, Chief Executive Officer and President

On the evening of February 7, 2008, the new CEO toured the Port Wentworth, Ga refinery; meeting with employees in the 100-year-old facility. A little after 7 p.m., a series of explosions ripped through the refinery –killing 14 employees, severely injuring others and nearly costing Sheptor his life. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Shortly thereafter a second corporate challenge faced Sheptor; the impending loss of the Louisiana raw sugar supply.

The Louisiana Sugar Cooperative, from which the Imperial Sugar Gramercy, LA plant received its entire raw sugar supply, decided in early 2008 to cut Imperial out of the mix and sign a deal with Cargill to build a new, larger and competing sugar refinery.

But that was not the end of his troubles; a third corporate challenge emerged with the bankruptcy of its largest shareholder.

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brother failed. With that failure, 3.3 million shares, or 28 percent of Imperial stock was left at risk, and eventually purchased by Barclays.

In March of 2009, Barclays sold 3.1 million shares in one transaction; five minutes before the market’s closing bell: and within one minute those shares were resold again. These transactions cost the company three million dollars in market capitalization.

Thirteen months after the plant explosion, if you were a journalist, industry analyst, investor or just curious and running a Google search on Imperial Sugar, it was not a pretty picture – media stories about a company in crisis had stalled on the dominant first pages of all search engines. The stories of explosion, fire and death – along with serious monetary and raw sugar supply troubles – all bubbled to the lead.

In May of 2009, Sheptor called on The News Group Net to develop a one-of-a-kind, content-rich, dynamic online newsroom that would address the issue of the negative online news stories, and connect with both internal and external audiences.

The primary objective was to improve the company’s “Google-ability” to reflect current corporate news rather than the year-old tragedy.

He recognized that the sheer speed, volume and rapid dissemination of information – right or wrong – was inundating his company’s ability to have its voice heard. With the decline of traditional media, Sheptor saw the need for credible, legitimate and transparent stories online about the company.

Some of his requirements for the newsroom included:

  • Provide an online alternative for media to access credible and unbiased  information about the Imperial Sugar.
  • Position Imperial Sugar as the new leader in sugar-refining safety.
  • Create awareness for its products and services, acquisition of new customers  and growth of business.
  • Restore company integrity with employees and customers.
  • Establish Imperial Sugar as a viable choice for investors, investment firms and customers.

One month after the initial meeting, the first newsroom staffed by independent professional journalists arrived online.

Features of the newsroom included:

  •  a concise, appealing “USA Today” style.
  • clear, informative, accurate and balanced stories with eye-catching photos
  • stories and photos available for reuse without permission
  • online library of high-resolution photos and videos
  • media inquiries immediately forwarded to cell phones so that questions can be answered within minutes, not hours
  • social media including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr
  • rotating RSS feed featuring the latest sugar news.

From the first day online; stories flowed into the newsroom on how the company was rebuilding and treating its associates, how the community had responded and was healing from crisis, how the company was building the safest and most modern sugar production plants in the world.

The site told the story of how the company forged a deal with the Louisiana Sugar Cooperative and Cargill to build a new plant adjacent to the current Gramercy site, thus ensuring a continuous supply of sugar for years to come.

Springfield Imperial

One month after the initial meeting, the first newsroom staffed by independent professional journalists arrived online. News Group Net’s Springfield Lewis interviews an Imperial employee at the Port Wentworth plant. Photo: ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Imperial Sugar’s commitment to sugar dust safety was discussed and documented in numerous articles. With each new visit, industry recognition of the newsroom grew. Competitors, as well as customers, openly admit to visiting the site daily for sugar industry news.

Within a month, the Imperial Sugar newsroom had become an integral communications component for the company. Within six weeks, it was the most popular online sugar site –ranked No. 1 – in the global sugar industry

With the growth of the newsroom came regular news media inquires; The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Oprah Magazine, Successful Farming and others were funneled to the appropriate Imperial Sugar representatives.

The staff of the online newsroom established relationships with the two PR firms used by Imperial, the Atlanta office of Edelman and the Houston office of Pierpont, turning a soon-to-be-issued news release into an appealing and legitimate online story with photos; set to post when the released was issued.

As a tool for crisis communications, the Imperial Sugar newsroom broke new ground, and established new best practices.

A recent study of online newsrooms issued by the Corporate Executive Board showed online newsrooms to be the top channel for disseminating company news stories.

The board extensively studied numerous newsrooms. In their final report, they cited the Imperial Sugar Newsroom as one of seven using the “best techniques and best practices”.”

The institution of the online newsroom gave Imperial Sugar a competitive advantage at a time when nothing seemed to be going its way. Photo: Imperial Sugar New

The Corporate Executive Board lauded the Imperial Sugar Newsroom as the leader in integrating “a content and look-and-feel that satisfied not only journalists, but other stakeholder audiences.”

In addition, PRSA, IABC, the Bulldog Reporter and social media expert David Meerman Scott have also praised the Imperial newsroom as a leader in “best practices” and a “proof of concept” for corporate journalism.

Within six months of going online, all of John Sheptor’s requirements for the newsroom were being met and the corporate communications crisis had calmed.

The search engine pages containing outdated and adverse coverage of Imperial Sugar had been pushed deeper and deeper into Google’s forgotten archives. More favorable news about the company’s growth and expansion dominated Google and other search engines. Although the seas were not completely smooth, the waters for Imperial Sugar were far more navigable.

In May of 2009 Imperial Sugar had a better story to tell its employees, and the pubic, than the media was willing to tell. The company was wallowing from the aftermath of a tragedy, customers were unhappy, investors shaken and employees left out of the loop. The institution of the online newsroom gave Imperial Sugar a competitive advantage at a time when nothing seemed to be going its way.


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