This Chapter examines the way in which government agencies and GDF Suez managed their public communications during the Hazelwood mine fire. Detailed analysis of key communication responses by each of the main government agencies is undertaken in previous chapters. This Chapter considers the overall effectiveness of crisis communication methods employed during the Hazelwood mine fire.

Under its Terms of Reference, the Board of Inquiry must inquire into and report on the measures taken by GDF Suez, emergency services and other relevant government agencies in respect of the health and wellbeing of communities affected by the mine fire, including how those communities were informed about the fire’s effects and risks.

The Country Fire Authority, the Environmental Protection Authority, the Department of Health, and the Latrobe City Council and a number of community organisations provided information to the community about the mine fire and its effects. Limited information was provided by GDF Suez.

The Board of Inquiry engaged two independent communications experts, Professor James Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Mr Lachlan Drummond, Consultant, Research and Strategy Lead at Redhanded Communications, to review communication during the Hazelwood mine fire. These experts advised the Board on best practice and principles relating to emergency communication, and communication in the context of rural and regional communities. The research and opinions of these independent experts have helped to inform this Chapter of the report.

The Board heard considerable feedback through the community consultation process, public submissions and evidence at public hearings, pointing to significant shortcomings by government authorities as well as GDF Suez in communicating during the emergency. Throughout the 45 days that the fire burned, members of affected communities felt they were not listened to and were not given appropriate and timely information and advice that reflected the crisis at hand and addressed their needs.

The Board acknowledges that all government agencies worked under a great deal of pressure to try to ensure that the community received appropriate information. The Board commends:

  • the Fire Services Commissioner, the Country Fire Authority and other emergency services for their communication with the community during the Hazelwood mine fire
  • the Latrobe City Council for undertaking a door knock of the entire town of Morwell, covering some 6,400 homes during the event, as well as the efforts of those from Councils as far away as Ararat who volunteered their time to assist with this door knock
  • those from Morwell Neighbourhood House, Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation, Asbestos Council of Victoria and Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc., and other community organisations for their efforts during the Hazelwood mine fire in keeping their community as informed and connected as they could under the circumstances
  • those residents responsible for the establishment of Voices of the Valley and their efforts to keep their community informed
  • the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC Radio) for keeping the community informed
    during the fire.

Unfortunately, communication responses overall did not reflect international best practice for crisis communication. The community experienced some of the messages from government as confusing and conflicting. Communication did not reach many people in a timely way and in some cases, not at all. Communication was largely one-way with information being transmitted, but not received or understood by the intended recipients. An over-reliance on digital technology, particularly early on, hindered the ability to reach all community members. Empathy was also often lacking, particularly from some government spokespeople. GDF Suez’s communication response was particularly deficient.