Swire Shipping "Pacific Adventurer" oil spill shows still a ways to go in crisis management

I’ve been commenting in the last while about the marked improvement I have been seeing in how many agencies and companies are responding to crises. Then one comes along like the Pacific Adventurer oil spill in Australia, that demonstrates there is still much work to be done. First, my thanks to Neil Chapman for tipping me off to this.

I encourage all crisis watchers to take a good look at the struggles (and some triumphs) of Swire dealing with this major disaster. The spill occurred on March 11 as the ship was fighting Cyclone Hamish. The Pacific Adventurer lost 31 containers containing fertilizer, one of which apparently ruptured a fuel tank causing a fuel spill. The large slick soon landed on some pristine beaches.

Swire provided an estimate of the lost fuel that did not correspond with the size of the slick. The news media attacked the government for its slow response and “outraged” politicians jumped on the company like wolves on filet mignon. There were accusations of lying. This was followed by the company categorically denying the lying charge.

Then comes the turnaround. On March 20, five days after Mr Lucas from the government lit into the company, he was now gushing over the response and trying his best to turn lemons into lemonade by suggesting the spilled oil could be converted into energy for the national grid.

But, on March 19 clearly Swire was struggling with dealing with the communication load of the response. Here is their very lame statement of March 19:

In a regrettable incident on 11 March 2009, there was a discharge of heavy fuel oil from the vessel “Pacific Adventurer”.
Very shortly, we will post here instructions to facilitate contact with people and companies who consider that they have suffered loss as a result of this incident. We hope to have these posted to this site by Friday 20 March.

We understand that there may be a considerable number of people wishing to make contact about this issue and we are keen to have facilities in place ready to handle enquiries appropriately.

“We are keen to have facilities in place ready to handle enquiries appropriately?” Come on people, it’s now 2009. This is the age of social media. This is the time of transparency, direct communication, high levels of interactivity, of actually responding not just to the oil on the water but to all those people whose lives you have impacted.

It’s much the same–too slow response. Inaccurate information. Media on the attack. Politicians go on the attack to protect themselves. Responsible party fights back but now way back on its feet. And then admits it can’t keep up with the demands for information. There is a better way. The country that brought us the great media training tool “The front of the ship fell off” had better learn from its comedians.