More oil spill drill lessons

One of the great benefits we have in working with the companies we do is the opportunity to participate in many different major crisis drills. From this perspective we can see how different companies and cultures approach these situations–even when the process is pretty well spelled out as it is with NIMS/ICS/JIC etc.

Having completed a couple of major drills with two of the largest oil companies exercising oil spill drills with multiple government agencies, I have a couple of observations. These relate specifically to the ability of these companies and the combined communication team of the Joint Information Center (JIC) to meet today’s incredibly high demands for information.

1) things have improved dramatically in the eight years I have been actively involved in this–in all respects. Understanding, training, technology, prioritization.

2) That being said, I believe that in a real event communication will be deemed a failure. The following explain my reasons.

3) The world has changed faster than those responsible for keeping up with it–particularly as it relates to instant news, social media, etc. While they are adapting, it is too little too late.

4) The two biggest practical problems with meeting the demand for speed are:

– the outdated notion of the physical JIC

–Incident Commanders end up making the critical decisions about strategy and speed of communication and they are woefully ill-prepared to make these decisions given their current understanding of the public information environment.

I do see that many communication managers and even a few emergency management executives understand this gap. But the biggest problem to me appears to be with the people who are training incident commanders. I have yet to see a single ICS training that does a good job of training regarding the JIC or the current information environment. JIC training itself is held completely apart from the incident commander training which leaves the PIO the responsibility of trying to convince incident commanders of what should be obvious to them.

5) There is no JIC Performance standard–most JICs do their “hot wash” or debrief and go through the lessons learned but there is no objective measurement by which they can really assess how they stack up. As a result, the lessons learned are really lost. Imagine going through school without an exam or some way of measuring learnings. Yet, this is what happens all the time and as result, improvement is much slower than it could be.

6) JICs are never really pushed. In this recent drill, the JIC sim cell member (one of our staff so he was someone who knew what he was doing) was injecting inquiries through the incident website which includes an interactive inquiry management function. In every real event, members of the media and public will use websites, email and every possible internet-based method to try to get information. But one of the JIC staff asked if he would stop sending inquiries through the web system because they didn’t want to have to deal with those–just the phone ones. And that was with just three sim cell members injecting into a JIC staff of probably 25! Imagine when that JIC has 12,000 reporters inquiring as would happen if the event they were drilling were a real one. This is a critical need and our company is investigating how we can provide an efficient way of simulating more effectively the kind of overwhelming burden a real JIC would face. Without this, everyone will continue to leave a 2-3 day exercise feeling they are in good shape to deal with the real thing.

When is a stock crash a crisis? Thoughts on Starbucks.

I think Starbucks CEO’s Howard Schulz’s efforts to rebuild his company’s cachet and stock value is one of the most interesting examples out there of crisis management (the other really interesting one being the campaign of course). While we don’t normally consider marketing, promotional PR, investor relations and the challenges of the marketplace to fit in the realm of crisis communications, there is no doubt the company is in for a fight of its life and Mr. Schulz’s stellar reputation as an innovative business leader and marketing genius is on the line.

A few observations then about this fight from a crisis management perspective. And I should mention I am a share holder ( a very longtime and loyal shareholder), an admirer of the marketing savvy that catapulted them to the top and created the premium coffee category, and have that local pride of having seen and visited the original Starbucks store in Pike Place Market back in the days before Howard Shulz–when it was a real hippie coffee house like Bellingham’s own Tony’s Coffee.

Crises like this aren’t singular events. The term “perfect storm” is often applied to crises these days–particularly deep, intractable ones. Several things contributed to the decline in share value that this crisis is all about: more and more competition (even from the likes of McDonalds!), a weariness with paying ever higher prices for coffee drinks, a weakening economy (more of a psychological factor re coffee than real I think) and then, of course, Howard’s very bad move of selling the Seattle Sonics to a guy who made it clear from the get-go that he was going to move the team to Oklahoma City. It turned local pride into bitter animosity.

Like most crises, it looked sudden but was far from it. The roots of the problem are many, deep and quite predictable. Competition has been building for the past years–much faster than the innovative leader was innovating. And Schulz’s move into professional sport team ownership was more than a diversion of attention–it was a clear signal that he wanted to play with the rich boys. The loss of attention to what was going on with the company along with the clear desire to cash in his chips and enjoy life contributed to what seemed an unreasonable revolt among shareholders. He clearly signaled he wasn’t into taking care of them, and when the exodus started, they signaled what they thought of that.

What is Howard doing to resolve this crisis? In crisis communication we keep saying the ultimate goal is to build trust and the way you do that is by full and open recognition of what is happening, what went wrong and why–and then crystal clear, entirely transparent communication about what you are doing to fix it and prevent it from happening again. It seems clear to me that Howard is taking his crisis very seriously and appears to have gotten serious about rescuing his once darling company. It may be too late to really rescue it. But he seems to be pulling out lots of marketing stops. My problem is that I don’t see the mea culpa of what went wrong, I don’t see or haven’t seen the shockingly honest acceptance of responsibility that it takes and I haven’t seen the crystal clear communication of what is being done about it. In other words, it seems to me that Howard is treating this as a business problem and not a reputation crisis.

I think that is a big mistake and one that a lot of companies facing huge share losses may make. And why not? Wall Street tends to think if you make your numbers things will be OK. They are not. Recent results showed increased store sales of 6% but the stock went down something like 5% – 7%. Why? Wall Street expected 7-8% growth–not a paltry 6%. I look at it and say, given the doo doo the company is in, the competition, the market, the animosity among some circles, the big disappointment among people like me, 6% looks dang good, almost miraculous. They have a whole and they are digging out, but it is not enough. And solving it with business strategies –although unquestionably effective in producing those numbers–will not solve their underlying crisis. Because it is a crisis, not a business problem. A crisis is about credibility, character, emotion, anger, risk, disappointment. It is not a cold calculation of 6% or 8%.

My advice to Howard–get visible. This is about your credibility. Say you’re sorry for taking your eye off the ball. Over and over and over until you are sick to death of it. Tell us you care about our tanked stock, about your employees, about making Starbucks shine brighter than ever. Tell us you are going to innovate your way out of this like you innovated yourself to the top. And show us something exciting and new. Take some risks–all within the core values you created and make consistent. Get on the road and talk to your customers and shareholders. Make us believe in magic again.

Communication strategy for a transparent world

I am amazed at some of the discussions about communication strategy–even among top communicators at top level corporations and organizations. One question frequently is do we prepare a holding statement or do we issue a release? In other words, do we wait for the media to come to us to ask us questions or do we go public with our information anticipating media interest.

It certainly is a valid question when there is really no way for the media to be alerted to a situation. Even then, there are concerns about taking the reactive approach simply because being proactive sends such a powerful message of trust and transparency. However, I understand the reluctance. No one wants to be seen as seeking out negative coverage. But, what confounds me is when the event is highly visible and active media interest is all but assured because of what is physically visible to them. Still, there are those–most I would say–who deem it wiser to prepare a holding statement than a release.

A couple of comments and approaches. There is a difference between widespread distribution of a press release and posting the information publicly. In any situation of highly visible activity that is very certain to stimulate media interest it is almost always best in my mind to publicly communicate the information. The best way is to post it on a public newsroom site. It is not necessarily best to proactively distribute it via email. But when a reporter calls, it is valuable to be able to say, oh yes, we posted complete information about this activity on our website two hours ago. That sends a powerful message. We are not hiding, we are not hoping you won’t notice or you have a busy newsday, we just treat this kind of information as normal communication with an interested public.

Related to this decision about going public or not, being proactive vs reactive, is the subject of how much to put in the holding statement. Those reticent types who want to use holding statements are also frequently of the mind to minimize the information. Don’t give them anything but the bare minimum. Just tell them how much we care about everybody and don’t give any facts. I think that is BS. Does that contribute to trust and confidence? Whenever possible I try to anticipate any and all questions that reporters may ask and have information available in advance to answer those. Whenever possible I try to put as much as I can in a Holding Statement for the same reason–built trust and confidence. But some things simply don’t belong there. And when probing reporters do ask the sticky questions, to be able to provide a detailed Q&A, FAQ or Fact Sheet that addresses all those plus probably others they haven’t thought of is pretty powerful. It’s also a great way to minimize reporter traffic in a crisis. After all, they want the information–all the information–they don’t necessarily want to talk to you. Giving it to them in dribs and drabs and minimizing it simply encourages reporters to dig deeper and deeper, but now with the strong sense that you are hiding things and therefore have things to hide. Blood on the water to a good reporter.

Are bloggers journalists–yes, no, well it depends…

Interesting discussion by Campbell Brown and another journalist on CNN the other night. They played the audio recorded by a blogger of former president Clinton lashing out against a “slimy” reporter who did an unfavorable report on the former president in Vanity Fair. The journalists were complaining about this because Clinton has refused to allow any journalist access to him recently on the campaign trail, including refusing to allow any journalists on the rope line. The blogger was on the rope line with the hidden tape recorder. Clinton assumed that she was a fan looking for a handshake, especially when she asked what he thought of the “hatchet job” in Vanity Fair. That’s when Clinton launched his tirade.

The CNN journalists were unhappy that they couldn’t get that juicy audio–because as journalists they were not allowed near. The questioned the ethics of the blogger in recording that audio and pretending to be a common citizen. Now wait just a minute here. Ethics? Would they have hidden a tape recorder and considered it ethical? I think so. Their only real complaint was that they as journalists were being treated differently than a blogger–who, by implication, they think should be treated as a journalist. Of course, most of the time those in mainstream media wouldn’t even come close to considering bloggers to be journalists. So, which way is it? Are bloggers journalists or not?

The other thing I found interesting is their comments on how this represents the new state of news coverage. They sort of sighed in a resigned way, that this is what things have come to and the likes of President Clinton will just have to get used to it. Indeed, and so will the “journalists.” The age of transparency is here. 300 million citizen journalists. If they don’t have tape recorders they certainly have cell phones with cameras. The term “off the record” is about to disappear from the lexicon. How can there be such a thing in an always visible, always recordable world?

Andrew Cohen's ridiculous attack on PR generates strong response from PRSA

I didn’t see the commentary from Andrew Cohen on CBS on June 1 but apparently he, a lawyer I might snidely comment, has concluded that every PR professional is a professional liar. His proof appears to be Scott McLellan.

This commentary resulted in a vigorous response by the PRSA on behalf of the profession. This video message from PRSA Chair and CEO Jeffrey Julin addresses the question head-on. The good thing about all this, and for which we must thank Mr. Cohen, is to raise the issue of honest, transparency and credibility to an important level of discussion. And while I appreciate Mr. Julin’s vigorous and respectful defense, I admire him for not falling into the strong temptation of pointing out that Mr. Cohen’s attack might be considered a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  After all, in the surveys on trust and credibility that I have seen, the public still considers attorneys one notch below PR folks–both near the bottom unfortunately.

Message to Incident Commanders: Speak NOW or forever hold your peace.

I observed another large scale drill recently. Millions of dollars spent. Wonderfully trained and prepared professionals in place–including some of the top communication professionals in the country. Great facility, technology, logistics. Even the public information technology (ours, of course) was fully integrated in the operation, ready to roll, everyone up to speed. But the communication was a complete disaster. For all the preparation and tools in place, one critical element was missing. The Incident Commander responsible for approval of information was woefully unprepared and ill-informed to deal with today’s instant news world.

The information process was working very well until he arrived. Then, everything stopped. A new release of info was delayed three hours while it went through six wordsmithing revisions. The legal team was invited to come in and help wordsmith–this in a Joint Information Center with multiple state and federal agencies participating and the resulting discussion about using the words “we regret” vs. “we are deeply sorry” took an inordinate amount of time.

Clearly the commander believed he was doing his job and doing it well. Words are important. Note–there was no dispute over key facts–just the way it was written in a release. But by his decision to get everything right to his satisfaction and all the Unified Command he threw away hundreds of thousands of dollars of preparation and years of training and expertise on the part of his JIC team. Far worse, he made a decision to allow bloggers to be the voice of the response. For in a real world situation in an event of this magnitude, neither the public nor the media would wait patiently for this wordsmithing process. They would get the information they were seeking from the thousands of eye witnesses who would see their small view of the incident. The JIC in those three hours lost once and for all its opportunity to be the voice of the response which is their job. Once lost, it is virtually impossible to get it back. The commander made the decision that getting the words just right, making the lawyer happy, and getting complete consensus on every sentence was more important than the JIC speaking for the response.

Someone forgot to tell him the world will not wait for him. Someone forgot to tell him he needed to speak now or forever hold his peace.

A great crisis communication case study from Crisis Manager and Judy Hoffman

I’ve been a regular reader of Jonathan Bernstein’s Crisis Manager e-newsletter for years and it continues to be one of the best resources on the subject. The current issue carries an article by Judy Hoffman that illustrates the despite the growing consensus and practice of crisis communication, there are still plenty of examples of where people don’t seem to get it.

This involves an industrial spill in St. Petersburg, FL. Here’s one telling line from the article:

How Did Citizens Learn of the Contamination?

They read about it in the newspaper! Ohmygoodness… Why, oh why have companies not yet learned that they would be much better off if they were the ones to communicate this type of information?

Judy Hoffman is the author of “Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat,” a great media training and crisis communications guide. As a former spokesperson for a chemical manufacturing company she has some great experience to share. I’m very pleased that she included several references to PIER in this latest fourth edition of this excellent book.

So, order the book, and while you are at it, sign up for Jonathan Bernstein’s Crisis Manager.

Scaling up an ICS response and the challenges of ESF15

First, I confess this topic may be a bit esoteric for a number of crisisblogger readers. But those who deal with the alphabet soup of NIMS, ICS, JIC, PIOs, and ESF15, this could be (I say should be) a hot topic.

Here’s some quick background, then I have a question for those who have experience in dealing with this topic. In March 2003, the Department of Homeland Security created a National Incident Management System (NIMS) that required all response agencies to use the Incident Command System and its communication function, the Joint Information Center, when responding to an incident when multiple government agencies were involved.

While ICS structure and training has been pretty much standardized, the Joint Information Center (and its procedural definitions sometimes referred to as Joint Information System or JIS) has used several different and evolving models. This has been simplified (in my mind) with the introduction in Nov 07 with the FEMA PIO Guidance Manual-which very closely resembles the NRT JIC Model which in my understanding has been the primary guidance for most involved in JICs since it was introduced in 2000.

The JIC has one overriding function and objective–to be the single voice of the response. That means, according to all plans except ESF15, all communication to all audiences about the response is managed by the JIC. The one complication under this model was the “Liaison Officer” function who had responsibility for communication with those from other agencies not on scene or immediately involved in the response.

This “one voice, one message” to multiple audiences was a key component of the JIC and PIER’s (full disclosure–PIER is the communication management tool used by many PIOs and JICs around the country to help manage JIC functions and I am the founder and CEO) benefit was strongly related to the single button concept whereby all audiences (neighbors, elected officials, executives, media, investors, employees, etc.) could be simultaneously informed of the latest info. Efficiency is one big benefit, but more importantly is the understanding that each of these audiences are very demanding of the information and to manage them separately means that problems will occur relating to timing and perception of favoritism.

ESF15 defines the JIC not as the voice of the response, but one part of the External Affairs function that includes 7 different components. The JIC is restricted to dealing with the media–while the responsibility of dealing with tribal concerns, community relations, private companies, legislative matters is removed from the JIC and divided up with different people responsible and presumably a different organization for each group. Even more surprising to me, the job of information gathering and message strategy is also pulled out of the JIC and a separate organization with separate leadership is required for this.

ESF15 is the law of the land. It absolutely defines how the federal government will deal with a large scale response. There are some very positive aspects to this, but my concern, since we are deeply involved in this business is how do you transition from a JIC defined in the FEMA PIO Guidance Manual sense to an ESF15 structure.

Here is where I would like some help. If any of you dealing with this subject have insights into how this works–particularly how it actually has worked in a large scale event or even drill, I would be most interested in hearing about it. Mark Clemens from WA State EMD has been very helpful in showing how his department prepares for this transition. Essentially, as the event scales up, a liaison person is designated as the lead for each of those critical groups I mentioned, such as tribal and community relations. That person not only coordinates closely with the JIC in communication and issues of concern to the group he/she represents, but is well positioned to transition to the federally appointed person to head that function.

I can see this working and is very helpful, but I remain very concerned that the very efficiency of coordinated communication management being built into the technology will be undermined by the natural human desire to protect turf. “What do you mean you sent out the latest fact sheet update to the community leaders? How could you do that? That is MY job!” And I guess that is my real question. Given the natural turf wars that unfortunately seem to me to built into the new structure, how should those be managed when what is most critical is getting the right information to the right people right now?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I apologize for the excessively long post.

More on fraudulent claims after an incident

I posted about the problem of dealing with fraudulent claims after something goes wrong. A crisisblogger reader submitted this comment which I agreed to keep anonymous.

While I have nothing to dispute the ratio of spurious to genuine claims you talk about, I would agree that after any event thr are spurious claims – and those spurious claims have a disproportionate impact. For example they are the ones people hear about and so tar all with the same brush unless they are obviously genuine. Sadly that breeds a degree of skepticism amongst people. Something that shocked me when I held a small fund raiser for victims of an industrial tragedy were the  number of folks who said they were unsympathetic despite the horror of the event because a bunch of people were going to be made very rich from it. Years later, as the litigation dragged on , one local person was quoted in a newspaper article saying their neighbors had made claims and got money – ” heck, so I put in a claim too for the sake of my kids..” It showed that some have no scruples and it only confirms what people thought would happen.  As jurors at legal trials are ordinary people, then they will likely share the same skepticism when they have to adjudicate on whether a claim against a corporation is genuine or not, meaning genuine claims risk not being properly compensated. That is in noone’s interest.
It’s easy for the lawyers to get blamed for this, but they are far from all the blame.
In short, you’re experience is borne out by what I have seen, but it may only be a handful that cause the problem. And are the courts the best place for these issues to be addressed? Perhaps forced adjudication is part of the answer. “