Cooperating with the Press Brings Benefits

By Carl Molesworth | September 28, 2010

Several times over the years I have used this space to urge contractors and engineers to adopt a policy of openness when dealing with the press. Yes, it's a daunting prospect to respond to the questions of a reporter on the trail of a hot story. But the benefits of doing so far can outweigh the consequences of refusing to cooperate.

The construction industry got a textbook example of just this point during November and December as the coverage of the deadly tower crane collapse in Bellevue, Wash., grew into multiple stories that so far have involved four different and unrelated tower crane incidents. The stories took several twists and turns because reporters had to grope in the dark throughout the industry to find knowledgeable sources willing to talk.

Reporters are trained to gather facts based around five questions: Who was involved? What happened? Why did it happen? Where did it happen? And when did it happen? Answering four of "The Five W's," as these questions are called in journalism class, is relatively straightforward in most cases. In the case of the Bellevue tower crane collapse, reporters had them nailed down within a day or so.

But determining why something happened is altogether different. In many cases the answer isn't immediately available. But the reporters still have to ask the question, so speculation and implication creep into their stories.

Look at the progression of coverage of the tower crane tragedy. Within days it was reported that the crane operator had a history of problems, including drug abuse. Reading that, one might assume that impairment was at least a contributing factor in the accident (it wasn't). Then came the revelation that the crane was mounted on an unusual foundation designed by a well-known Seattle engineering firm, suggesting perhaps another explanation for the collapse. Next, cracks were found in several other tower cranes on the east side, and speculation turned to maintenance and inspection of tower cranes. And somewhere in there, stories revealed that Washington has neither a crane operator certification requirement nor a governmental inspection program.

But as I write this in mid-December, there is no firm explanation of what happened, pending full investigations of the collapse and subsequent incidents.

In all of these cases, what we are really talking about is people, not tower cranes. The person paying the biggest price in the collapse, of course, was the innocent man who lost his life. Then comes the unfortunate crane operator, whose past came back to haunt him despite its irrelevance.

But the blame arrow also has pointed at various times as well to the crane owner, the erector, the foundation engineer, the company providing the operator, and the construction industry in general. Businesses are people at their heart, and people get hurt when they are saddled with blame that may not be of their making.

It is my opinion that the Northwest construction industry suffered damage from the crane collapse press coverage that might have been avoided if more executives had been willing to talk to reporters during the course of this story. There is only one reaction by readers to the report that someone was "unavailable for comment" or did not return phone calls: He or she must be hiding something.

How does the industry stand to lose? A couple of ways. Most directly were calls from various politicians to take action correcting the tower crane problem — before the problem has even been identified. The legislative "solution" likely will include state certification of crane operators and a more intensive program of construction site safety inspections. These aren't necessarily bad ideas, but as we all know from dealing with government programs, the devil can be in the details. And you can bet they will cost money, too.

Another hit is to the construction industry's image. It's sad to me, and ironic as well, that after years of making great strides to improve safety in the industry, an accident such as this can offset this good work in the course of a few dozen column-inches of newspaper type or a few fleeting moments of television time. That's the last thing we need at a time when we are struggling to attract bright, talented young people to construction.

It all comes down to this: The next time the phone rings and your receptionist tells you it's a reporter on the line, pause a second to think about the message you want to get across, and then answer the questions with the same intelligence and principles you use in conducting your business. How could that be a bad idea?