I’m writing this from our nation’s capital where I was a speaker at the Public Relations Society of America International Conference. I’ll share some of what I presented on the topic of Reputation Resilience in a later post. But right now I want to share an interesting convergence of thought leaders.
I just finished listening to Charlene Li, a well recognized expert in the transformation that social networking is causing in all our lives and structures. Her book “Open Leadership” demonstrates that leadership today is of necessity much more participatory with a great many people.
If I had a chance to talk with Ms Li, I would say one of the greatest examples of Open Leadership and public participation was just made evident in the Gulf Spill. Admiral Allen absolutely demonstrated this kind of participatory leadership in the remarkable job he did. If the media and public only knew the kind of difficult waters he had to navigate through, their admiration for him would be off the charts. He talked about this issue of public participation in an interview with Harvard Business Review, an interview that in edited form will appear in the November issue.
Here is one of the most telling quotations from that interview: “We all have to understand that there will never again be a major event in this country that won’t involve public participation. And the public participation will happen whether it’s managed or not.” The Admiral draws an equation between the profound changes in the public information environment with the Internet and social media and the changes brought by climate change. He refers to John Holdren, the science and technology adviser to the president who says our response to climate change will be adapt, manage or suffer. Allen says that when it comes to the role of the Internet and social media in public participation, we have to adapt, manage or suffer. He is clearly committed to managing and adapting, and demonstrated that when he was Commandant of the Coast Guard by being an early adopter of social media himself and mandating widespread use of it in the Coast Guard. That paid off very well by the early social media use in the Deepwater Horizon event.
However, public participation in major responses is not without its problems. The National Oil Spill Commission working paper which I referred to in an earlier post pointed out that many decisions about boom placement were not based on where response leaders determined they could do most good in protecting beaches, but instead were placed for political reasons. I am aware of some that were done to support photo opps for major dignitaries, but the Commission working papers shows that the very noisy and incessant rants of the likes of Billy Nungesser had much to do with boom placement. They call it the “boom wars.”
It is a sad commentary on the public participation process that Anderson Cooper and the producers of CNN can directly and negatively impact response management through the irresponsible use of highly entertaining but extremely negative and distracting influences such as Mr. Nungesser. They would of course say, it’s not our fault, we just are the messenger. Yes, but the messenger that insisted on giving Mrs Nungesser, Carville and various other nay sayers an inordinate amount of their precious air time.
Admiral Allen also mentions in this interview the challenge of working with the Responsible Party in a major response: “Our biggest challenge in dealing with BP was that the public did not understand how the company responsible for the event could play such a large role in the response. But because they’re going to have to write checks for buying booms, buying skimmers, to catering companies, and all that other kind of stuff, they have to be on location with you if you’re going to be effective. We’re used to working that way—it’s how the U.S. has organized oil spill responses for 20-plus years—but I don’t think that was well understood by the public or a lot of the political leadership.”
In the audio interview he refers to the “social and political nullification” of response plans that had been well practiced for 20 years. He has an outstanding way of putting these things in very politically acceptable language. Let’s be clear however: the media’s complete ignorance of Unified Command, NIMS, ICS and the JIC led to often ridiculous reporting and very serious misunderstanding among the public as to how the response was handled and the best way to handle it. Also, the highest leadership of the land had little to no awareness of NIMS and, as the National Commission working paper on “Decisions in Unified Command” made clear, they ran completely rough-shod over the National Contingency Plan, the Area Contingency Plans and the Regional Response Teams.
What the Admiral does not say is what this media and public ignorance plus action by the administration has done to our nation’s ability to respond in the future. I continue to believe it is an issue that needs much more in-depth study and a way forward that preserves the ability of agencies plus private parties to cooperate and collaborate in an atmosphere of trust in the future.