Tag Archives: BP Oil Spill

White House and BP legal wrangling: more damage to collaborative work in disaster response

The relationship between the federal government and a company held accountable for oil spills has always been touchy. After the ExxonValdez accident in 1989, it was seen that the role of the government in responding a major spill was unresolved. That was settled with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 which put the government inside the command of a spill response with the company owning the oil, the “responsible party” running the show but with very close government supervision. The Incident Command System was used with the federal official part of “Unified Command” and having the authority to “federalize” the response at any time, meaning they would assume direct control and essentially kick out the responsible party from response management decisions.

That’s the way it was for over 20 years. The goal in that time was collaboration. Everyone involved saw it as in their best interests to work together. The Responsible Party (RP) knew they had to get approval from the FOSC (Federal On Scene Coordinator) or face federalization. The Joint Information Center (JIC) came along, codified by the Coast Guard in 2000 in the first JIC Model manual, with the primary purpose of providing the response facts while standing together with a key message of “we’re in this together.”

I participated in a number of ICS/JIC responses in my career and even more drills and exercises. This, I can tell you, was the policy, the plan, the intention. There were always wrinkles (like when WA State Dept of Ecology demanded they be the sole authority much to the consternation of the Coast Guard) but for the most part it worked very well.

That ended with the BP Oil Spill. The Obama Administration starting with the President, his senior staff and the Secretary of DHS clearly had no awareness of ICS and JIC protocols, nor the history of standing together. Given the media and public pressure, they felt it essential to throw BP under the bus and break down any pretense of partnership or standing together. BP was unceremoniously thrown out of the JIC and one official said the response was being federalized. Hold on, said the National Incident Commander Thad  Allen, not so fast. BP is essential to this response, they have the equipment, expertise and manpower that the government doesn’t. Plus, it’s their money that is paying for everything.

So this uneasy situation emerged: the White House running all communications and turning the JIC into a part of the political messaging machine–with the primary purpose of focusing public outrage on BP (remember the “who’s ass to kick comment”?) Part of that communication was to assure the public that the government was running the response. They were telling BP what and how to do it.

OK, that’s history. Now the legal issues take front stage. This article, (thanks JD) is about a legal wrangle between BP and the White House over access to White House emails. The federal government is suing BP for all the damage, including damage while responding. And BP is saying, but since you were telling us what to do, shouldn’t the demands and dictates you prepared be included in the trial? We have a strange situation where the government is attempting to hold a major corporation accountable for actions which, to some degree, it dictated.

One example from the article:

One e-mail, “Re: Flow Rates,” contains discussions between White House officials, Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar, National Incident Commander Thad Allen, with copies to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “concerning how and when to address information in future press communications” about the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

As you know BP was pilloried in the press (and among crisis communications pundits) for underestimating the flow. Yet post spill analysis (check earlier posts here) showed that it was Unified Command led by the Coast Guard who prepared the flow estimates and released them. (Don’t get me wrong–I’m not blaming the CG, they all had the best available info at the time and accusations of underestimating are prime examples of brilliance by hindsight.) The White House overall was remarkably effective in blunting public outrage and blame directed against itself and ensuring through its powerful office that the President in particular was innoculated.

The effect of this on the National Incident Management System, the Incident Command System and the Joint Information Center is massive and will continue to be felt for years. Two recent examples: conversing with oil industry communications experts recently made it clear that in any future major events under this administration, all communication will be cleared by WA DC (either White House or CG HQ as needed). This is a massive change, undermines the authority of Unified Command, and almost guarantees that any news coming out of an official JIC will be very late and largely pointless. Except for “talking points for the White House” as CNN called the emissions from the JIC after the White House took control.

Another example, in discussions with city government officials about their plans for joint communication with other agencies in a JIC, the primary problem to be addressed is demand of elected officials to have approval authority over JIC communications. Again, this slows it down, removes responsibility for communication from Unified Command, and is a direct violation of NIMS. However, what elected official is going to be concerned about that given the example provided by the highest office of the land? We saw that with the Governor of Montana in the Yellowstone River spill a year after Deepwater.

The damage is done. I can only hope that more in government communications and those who may need to work with the government in major events become aware of this, adjust plans accordingly, and hope for a day when there is a return to collaboration and standing together.

(Full disclosure, my previous company was engaged by both the US government and BP in the oil spill.)


Former BP crisis comms leader, Neil Chapman, provides some of best crisis prep advice

I’m very pleased to share Crisisblogger with my good friend and associate Neil Chapman, with Alpha Voice Communications. Neil recently left BP where he served in a number of communication leadership positions, including leadership roles in the Texas City, Alaska corrosion and Deepwater Horizon events. Few people on earth have been on the frontlines of communication during so many major events or crises, which have also included natural disasters such as Katrina. But it is also true that few have the ability to turn those gut-wrenching experiences into practical lessons learned that can help others prepare and respond. As they used to say about a major investment firm, when Neil Chapman speaks, crisis communicators listen.

Goodbye 2010.  Last year saw different crises –the horrific Haiti earthquake, the ash cloud air chaos and snow muddle, both in the UK and US. Along with scores of communications professionals, I was caught up in the BP oil spill for too much of 2010,

Both a human and environmental disaster, the event was complex and extremely expensive in its emotional and economic toll. Any organisation facing an emergency or crisis would be wise to learn lessons from the incident, without the costs that befell BP.

Reports and inquiry testimony are readily available to study. BP has produced its own investigation report and a technical lessons learned document with accompanying DVD –  http://www.bp.com/liveassets/bp_internet/globalbp/globalbp_uk_english/incident_response/STAGING/local_assets/downloads_pdfs/Deepwater_Horizon_Containment_Response.pdf

Many pundits have shared opinions about where BP went wrong and what it should have done. Here are some observations, that can point to where organisations might start to look for lessons relevant to them:

Readiness – an every day investment

In a crisis, time is precious, priorities key. Whatever the world thinks, BP was readier than many organisations. Meetings need a purpose, priorities established, decisions taken efficiently, communications clear and concise. All good skills and habits worth cultivating for every day business. But it takes training and practice.

Know the system

If outside agencies, especially emergency services, respond to a corporation’s incident, it will likely be managed using an established response system with tried and tested procedures and protocols. Corporate responders – including senior management – need to be familiar with the system.

It’s an on-line world

On-line is where most of the conversations and coverage about a crisis now occur. Corporate communicators who believe they should focus solely on traditional, mainstream media during a crisis – however demanding they are – will miss most of what is being said about them by default.

Social media smart

A crisis is not the time to learn the challenges and opportunities of social media such as You Tube, Twitter, Facebook etc. These channels can hurt and help at the same time. Corporate communicators need to be social media savvy, knowing when and how they can use these channels in a crisis. And tomorrow there will be a new one to learn about …

A mobile world

As well as being on-line, the world carries the internet on its hip or in a purse. To reach key audiences on the go, corporate communicators cannot be hidebound by the technology they are permitted or know how to use.

Information discipline

To provide timely, accurate on-message information to the outside world as soon as possible across an organisation requires discipline to ensure it is shared effectively inside too. Information discipline gets harder over time, as people shift in and out or they are spread over geography and time zones. Has your organisation got a system other than email?

Plan for help

Chances are a corporate communications department will need extra people to cope with the tremendous information demand during a crisis. To bring them on-board takes time and effort, just when you need both for other priorities.  Learn how to integrate extra resources quickly as well as how to coordinate with other agencies.

Communications processes

A corporate communications manual provides clear ‘how to’ instructions that save time and help integrate the ‘new hands’ an organisation needs. Have you got one?

Leaders – be hard, be soft

A crisis tests any leader’s people skills. Responders need honest feedback, positive and negative. If something or someone isn’t working, the problem has to be fixed quickly to keep the response on track. But at the same time, people need to be ‘nurtured’ when the going gets tough for them.

Beware of the toll

Crises wear people down. The strain can show up at work or at home. Relationships may break. Any corporation that sees its people as an important asset needs to provide effective employee support in a crisis. The first step is to make sure they are trained.

Think strategic

It’s hard to see the writing on the wall with your back to it!  It’s too easy to get trapped into focusing on an immediate challenge – and not to look far enough ahead. A team, or someone, needs to be thinking long term from the outset.

Don’t make it worse..

Until the world thinks the crisis is fixed, there’s a lot an organisation can say to make things worse for itself. Stay on message and talk ‘actions, actions, actions’.

BP’s crisis was the first energy industry disaster of the social media age. The result was that information – good and bad – travelled at an exceptionally fast rate, was dominated by digital and saw demand for it go through the roof. But some of the most effective communication took place face to face.

The communications landscape is now much, much broader than it was. Organisations – particularly corporate communicators – should take note and learn because 2011 will bring its own crop of crises.

Neil Chapman worked as a communicator for BP until last year. He has 25+ years experience dealing with crises and difficult public affairs issues around the globe. He founded Alpha Voice Communications consultancy to focus on crisis communications readiness, presentation training and issues management. Go to:www.alphavoicecommunications.com to find out more.

Open Leadership, Admiral Allen and Public Participation

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.

“Unending Flow” Gulf Spill Communications Case Study Now Available

For those interested in taking an in-depth, behind the scenes look at the massive communication effort during the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill, I have written a 60 page analysis of the communication activities. A 7 page executive summary is also available.

The case study is organized into three sections: Internet communications including use of the PIER System, media coverage analysis, and organization structure. (Full disclosure for new crisisblogger readers, I’m the creator of PIER and founder of PIER System.)

The section on organization structure will be of special interest to those using the Incident Command System, the Joint Information Center and the National Response Framework’s ESF#15 External Affairs construct. Many of the most significant challenges in the communications related to the inherent differences and conflicts between these organization structures.

For those interested in the Internet communications, the numbers will be impressive: estimated 500 million hits to official sites providing info about the response including 155 million on the primary Unified Command website. 67,000 inquiries responded to personally. 35 million plus emails distributed to audiences seeking information. Intensive social media use and engagement. Background behind the live video feeds and the set up of “Turtle Talk,” the integration of live webcasting with live chat and Twitter.

Here’s the link for a copy of the case study.

Also, if you’d like to sit in on a free webinar briefing on Gulf Spill Communications, I’m doing a series of them and would love to have you participate.

Here’s the link to register for a briefing.

Please feel free to send these links to others involved in crisis communication who would appreciate a more in-depth understanding of what happened in probably the biggest crisis communication challenge in recent memory.

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.