Messages about recovery from the water emergency need to be developed and delivered locally, statewide and beyond as quickly as possible to help restore the state's image, an experienced public relations and crisis communications expert said.
"Messaging needed to start yesterday," said the expert, who asked not to be identified because of his ties to public relations and crisis communications firms. "It's so important in a crisis situation to get out in front and frame your messages before people form an impression without the benefit of your message.
"In a crisis, the most precious resource is time. And a lot of time has already been wasted.
"I think it stands to reason most people will say, ‘This isn't going to affect the whitewater industry.' But doggone it, it could. We know it was only a nine-county area but I guarantee you to the folks outside of this state, it's ‘West Virginia' and ‘a water problem.'"
Although the emergency wasn't statewide, the fact it included the capital city is particularly important, the expert said.
"A lot of conventions come here; government brings in folks; and it's the largest population area in West Virginia," the expert said. "It's critical to get those messages out there and put a plan together because if you don't, you just get further and further behind the eight ball.
"A lot of people, a lot of organizations, think, ‘Once we get past the crisis, things will gradually get back together.' Well, the longer you don't address an issue, the longer it's going to take for it all to come back together.
"What I've been waiting for is those messages to start resonating. What is happening is every group has a little bit different message. That becomes what we call in the crisis business ‘mixed messages.' Folks don't know which one to believe. That sets you back.
"There need to be messages. There needs to be a plan on how to get them out locally, statewide and then outside the state. Every day that goes by without these messages, it's another day it's going to take us to recover, image-wise.
"We shouldn't kid ourselves. This is a heck of a problem and it's not going to be an easy one to solve. What I hope is that this isn't all done internally. We've got some very qualified professionals in this state in tourism, in public relations and in communications."
The expert said he suggests the city and the state reach out to some outside professionals with deep knowledge of West Virginia and who have handled reputation issues for clients all over the world to solicit some advice.
"We're all here and our judgment is based on our personal experience," the expert said. "I think it would be really good to bring in some folks who have the experience and know-how, yet they're us — they know the valley, they know the situation. I think that's critical.
"Hopefully some research will be done to find out exactly how extensive the problem is. We can sit here and say, ‘Wow, this is a heck of a problem.' But once again, our judgment has been tainted because we've been involved in this.
"Our first inclination is, ‘West Virginians know how to deal with a crisis.' And you know what? We've dealt with so many of them, we are experienced. But I think when it comes to reputation in a crisis like we're going through it's good to reach out to folks who grew up here and made their living throughout the world working on major crisis situations and say, ‘Why don't you come in here and give us the benefit of your thoughts?' I think that's really critical.
"I am afraid we are going to step back and say, ‘Oh wait a minute. We know how to solve our problems.' I'm not sure we do. We're just too much involved in it."