A big change in messaging in Gulf spill–the feds are in charge

I just reposted my bog from Emergency Management on how can communication be good when public opinion is bad.

One point I made in that post is the messaging from the Administration that is very confusing about the role of the government in the response–telling everyone that it is all on BP when in fact it is Unified Command with all agencies working in concert. Right now I am watching the live press conference from the White House–the message has completely changed. He is making it very clear that the federal government was in charge all along and they are telling BP what to do or at minimum approving or modifying BP’s plans. While it may not seem significant, this is very huge. The truth is coming out. The problem with EPA sending its demand letter about dispersants even while they have been involved and approved all dispersant plans is now having to be explained by the administration. The “boot on the neck” message will not go away, but at least the meaning of Unified Command is now becoming clear.

Lessons from Deepwater Add Up

It’s almost impossible to keep track of all the critically important lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon spill (aka BP Spill). Since I and many in my company are involved, some of the most important ones will have to be discussed later. But a few quick notes:

Information Discipline of the JIC–NIMS compliance and the core function of the JIC calls for information discipline. That is that there be one and only one official voice for the event and that voice be fully and completely under Unified Command control. We’ve discussed here before how bad things can go when that info discipline is not followed. One tragic example was the Sago Mine incident where someone in the Command Post reported what they thought they heard from a radio about the 12 miners being rescued, directly to a family member in the church where families had gathered to pray. The families went wild with good news, the news media spread it around the world, and the Incident Commander unfortunately waited for many hours to provide the correct information. Information discipline in the Deepwater has been a challenge on many fronts, but the most visible breakdown occurred this past weekend. The NYTimes reported that scientists on board one of the research vessels identified a huge underwater plume. There was speculation about this plume, its make-up and where it might be headed as well as potential impacts. The vessel, brought into the response, was under direction of NOAA. The release of this information, potentially through a private blog of one of the researchers, has had significant impact. This kind of information absolutely needs to be verified and provided through official channels–to avoid important people being caught flatfooted. Ever since the story came out and was repeated by all major outlets, the JIC has been trying to address the highly speculative nature of the comments. A huge fear was created, potentially unnecessarily, and completely outside the control of Unified Command. Who is responsible? I understand that there are thousands of people working on this event. But each and everyone of them need to understand that only the Unified Command has the authority to release information about the event itself, the response, and the plans. Whoever brings those people in to help has a very serious obligation to get their full commitment to do so. And failure to observe this critical NIMs requirement could be and should be serious for the violators.

Another lesson–adequate preparation. One of the main stories of today, May 18, is that BP was unprepared for an event of this nature. That means that every oil company in the world may be asked if they are prepared. One elected official, quoting I think Apollo 13 stated that what we have here is a lack of imagination. Clearly, with all the worst case scenario planning, there are events of such magnitude that if they were imagined they would be considered ludicrous. It will be up to the experts to determine if this applies to this event. All I can say, having worked with many oil companies over the past ten years that there is no industry–bar none–that spends as much time and money on preparation and practicing response, is so incredibly safety conscious, creates an almost overwhelming culture of safety, than anyone else. If BP is unprepared for an event of this magnitude, the reporters looking to place the blackhat on them, ought to ask that question of every other company or agency where the unimaginable can happen.

One more comment–several analogies have emerged trying to communicate the scale of this event. In terms of media and public focus, this may be the biggest since Katrina or 9/11. In terms of the technical challenges some of the leaders have said this is more like Apollo 13 than ExxonValdez. And of course the ExxonValdez comparions are obvious. My thought–this is the Three Mile Island for the oil industry. As Three Mile Island put us hopelessly behind the rest of the world in terms of use of nuclear energy, this no doubt will have similar long term effects on the oil industry, energy independence, and the strength of our nation. Did anyone notice that a few days ago China and Nigeria announced plans for $23 billion in new oil refineries in China. I’m very concerned and quite certain where this event will lead us as a nation.

An idea and dream realized

The news out of the Gulf seems unremittingly bad. The spill continues unabated and continues to threaten sensitive areas, and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. There are families–too forgotten I feel, grieving the loss of eleven men. What the long term damage and cost will be is still far from certain. The media are doing their typical thing of finding any and every reason to get people to get eyes on their screens or pages. The politicians are playing their roles perfectly–wringing their hands in righteous indignation and trying hard to pin blame, while their staffs are busy working at piles of new laws and regulations. The White House has a clear strategy–make certain that the government is blameless in all regards and make certain this is not the president’s Katrina.

From an inside/outside perspective it is amazing to me what is happening and the lessons learned. I spoke yesterday to a group of Public Affairs Officers from the National Guard and pointed out that this event will be one of those we look back on that changed our world. But right now we are in it, deep in it.

It was just about eleven years ago that the event from which PIER was created happened. Being involved in the communications in that large pipeline event, I saw that there could be and had to be a better way of communicating. A few key beliefs emerged:

- all communications had to be conducted on a web platform because as George Gilder said a long time ago, the network is the computer. Web-based meant completely portable and facilitate collaboration from wherever.

- Everything had to be in one place–contacts, background info, team members, web content, distribution methods, reporting, tracking, etc. Can’t use multiple systems when the world is crashing around you.

- web service had to be incredibly robust–even eleven years ago it was obvious the web would be the primary way of getting info. It is.

- Had to manage communication with everyone, not just the media. All stakeholders expect and demand the latest and best info. The media in this view was one of many many important audiences for the info.

- Had to automate basic processes–like building a list of those who want to get your updates.

- had top be able to manage interactivity–there will be a lot of people including reporters who have questions, some will have comments, some will want to vent. In their own minds, they are all important–and they are absolutely right.

PIER became the system we developed out of those beliefs. While the world may be in shock and expressing outrage over the events, and while there remain serious internal obstacles to getting the right info out fast, from my perspective the beliefs were right and are now being played out on a scale I could not have imagined 11 years ago. The dedicated communicators from many different organizations and located at different parts of the globe are collaborating with quite remarkable effectiveness. A steady stream of meaty information releases is going out to the tens of thousands who have registered themselves to get those updates (register yourself at www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com). There are thousands and thousands of individuals who have submitted questions or comments–many are helpful suggestions, some are expressions of support, many legitimate questions, and thousands have used the opportunity to express their disdain, hatred, political views and threats of harm. All but the most abusive have been personally and directly responded to. Monitoring is part of the function and is being done. Social media is being used to great effect. The processes for creating, editing, reviewing and approving information are proving their worth–even as approvals get increasingly convoluted.

And some are taking note of how this working and the effectiveness of it. An article in Nextgov highlighted PIER’s use and yesterday I was interviewed by the New York Times technology reporter on how web-based technology is being used in this response (still waiting the report to publish).

I remember the line from the A Team, Hannibal I think it was who said, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Eleven years later, though very far from perfect, I think the plan has come together.

A No Comment Comment on the Deepwater Horizon spill

Crisisblogger readers may be wondering about my silence on the Deepwater Horizon (otherwise known as the BP Oil Spill) event. This is a crisis of unprecedented proportions–the “mother of all crises” said one of those involved. Because BP, the Coast Guard and US Dept of Interior’s Minerals Management Service, the three key agencies leading the response, are all PIER clients and our staff is very involved in the response, I will withhold comments for the time being.

There are many lessons being learned however, the most significant to me at this point is whether NIMS can survive the inadvertent damage that it is undergoing. I will say this: if NIMS is to survive and will be the way in the future for multi-agency and public/private partnerships in major responses, the entire emergency management community must unite in educating elected officials, agency representatives, the pundits, the media and the public on what NIMS is, what it says about responsibility, who runs a response, how communication is done. The profound lack of understanding from the highest office to every newsroom is seriously impacting public perception about this event.