Tag Archives: Deepwater Horizon

Oracle’s media access policy in serious need of updating

Shel Holtz blogged today about Oracle firing of social selling executive Jill Rowley who claims she was fired for giving an unauthorized interview to AdAge magazine.  Shel suggests, and I agree, that there seems to be more to this story than an errant interview.

But it raises once again the issue of media access. What’s your policy? Having reviewed dozens of crisis communication plans in the last few years, I have yet to find one that conforms to what I believe is the norm following the media access controversy during Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Here’s what happened as I understand it: Reporters went out on the beaches and where spill response activity was happening and tried to interview responders. They were told they were not to speak to the media. The media understood this to be another of evil BP’s efforts to stifle and cover up–despite the fact that BP was not running, nor involved in the public communication effort at this time. It was the White House dictating media access policy. But when one veteran Coast Guard PIO tried to clarify that it was White House policy, not BP, he was promptly sacked. Pressure grew to the point where National Incident Commander Thad Allen issued a media policy carried by all PIOs (which is how I saw it). It said, again as I recall, the policy is to provide maximum access with minimum delay, consistent with safety and with not interfering with response operations. It further said that all responders are authorized to speak to the media providing they restrict their comments to their own area of responsibility.

Previously I had heard from Coast Guard PIOs that Allen as Commandant of the Coast Guard had implemented that policy for the entire Coast Guard. One senior Coast Guard official, given the White House’s desire to control the message, expressed doubts whether that policy would continue to stand. I suspect, but do not know, that it still stands in some form, but with the understanding that the leash is pretty tight.

Given all this, I have advised everyone I know to look at their media access policy in this light. Recognize first of all that if you have the media’s black hat on, there will be heightened sensitivity to any and all indications of cover-up, controlling the message or lack of transparency. When one of your employees responds to a reporter’s question with “we were told by top management we can’t talk to you” that is blood in the water to the shark.  If you do hold to a spokesperson only policy, then make certain you include in your refer and defer training (employee training on how to respond to reporter questions by referring to authorized spokesperson) use of a better response. Such as, “I’d love to help you with that, but I just don’t have the information you are looking for, so let me help you find the person who can answer that for you.” This is a little tough when all the reporter wants is an emotion-laden visual response when he/she asks the question: “How do you personally feel about this tragedy?”

The best policy and one I consistently advise, is to adopt Admiral Allen’s policy of maximum access with minimum delay, consistent with safety and no interference with the response.  Every employee or contractor is a spokesperson–but with the restriction of limiting what they say to their own area of responsibility. That is where much of the focus of media training should be today.

 

Pre-emptive strike regarding upcoming blog story

I’ve been interviewed by a major political blog about the Gulf Spill communications and have become a little nervous about how the story as it evolves keeps taking unexpected twists. So this is a sort of public pre-emptive strike in case I feel that I have been misquoted or that I might have mis-communicated my intentions.

The issue is about the growing independence of BP in the communications about the event. It is now quite common knowledge that BP was uninvited from an active role in the Joint Information Center and since about June 4, it has not participated in joint press conferences. In fact, there aren’t joint press conferences. There are BP press briefings but Admiral Allen stands alone on the podium for Unified Command press conferences. I understand the reasons for this and they may be valid and this may be necessary and I won’t judge whether it is good or bad.

And let’s be clear–Unified Command continues on, the partnership exists in the response. It just no longer exists in the public communication about the response.

But my point is this–what does this mean for the National Incident Management System that still mandates collaborative response? What does this do for OPA 90 where ICS and the JIC were a requirement for an effective response and effective communication? Will the Gulf Spill mean that agencies won’t cooperate–particularly when the media blame game is as rampant as it is here and the political reaction is to throw anyone else under the bus? BP is doing nothing wrong, illegal, or unexpected. The first variance away from the JIC came from federal agencies, not BP. They began aggressive and independent communication about the spill and response long before BP started going its own way. But when every JIC release is primarily about the antagonism between the federal government and BP, it is both right, fair and understandable for the JIC to no longer operate as it has for 20 years.

I just hope the blog writing on this gets it right.

T. Boone Pickens and Arnold Schwarzenegger–cures for what ails us

I watched T. Boone Pickens on Larry King last night talking about the spill. About the first reasonable perspective I have seen given any air time on this event. Larry asked him about the oil that BP was capturing from the well through the containment device and if BP was making a profit on that oil. Pickens looked at him like “are you out of your pea picking mind?” Of course BP isn’t making money on the spill given the millions it is costing them every day. To be fair, I think Pickens missed the point of the question–I think Larry meant to ask if the oil being captured was being sold or processed and how much money was involved in that.

Pickens appearance reminded me that what this event needs is Arnold Schwarzenegger. I recall when California was facing big wildfires the media starting doing their regular and expected thing. They found someone disgruntled with the fire department and accused them of having a bunch of aircraft sitting on the ground not doing anything. Truth was they were temporarily restrained due to high winds. But instead of letting the media get by with the blame game and building a head of steam around the all-too-expected failure to respond story, the Governor took them head on. He was angry, he was direct. I don’t recall the exact statement but it was to the effect that anyone who suggests we are not doing everything we possibly can is ignorant or a liar and he won’t put up with it. He all but called them girly-men.

That is one thing that is desperately needed in this response–Pickens came the closest I have seen to showing disgust for how this event is being treated politically and in the media. The truth is the response is being conducted on an unprecedented scale. The technology, the brain power, the dedication, the effort is just incredible. And despite the terrible circumstances, battles are being won every day. But that is a story no media outlet fighting for its life can afford to tell.

Someone needs to tell Anderson Cooper that he is being far from honest, letting alone keeping anyone else honest. Someone needs to tell the NYT who almost daily comes up with some angle to say BP is being dishonest about this or that they should see that the news that is fit to print includes the heroic effort going on right now by some terrific people doing their very best. Someone needs to stand up and say all those who see in this event only the opportunity to grab viewers and place blame are, well, just girly-men.

Not Sure How the Joint Information Center Can Survive This


I do not see how the Joint Information Center (JIC), as it has been conceived and implemented the past ten years, will be able to survive the Deepwater Horizon event. If I am right, this will have very significant consequences for how major environmental events are managed in the future as well as how NIMS (National Incident Management System) will be implemented in the future.

To understand the very serious implications of what is happening today, we have to go back to the Incident Command System and how it developed, particularly in the oil industry. ICS began in the early 1970s with the fire services on the West Coast. When a number of fire of agencies came together to fight a fire they found the coordination pretty difficult. Who was in charge? Who was deciding what trucks and resources should be deployed where? How and where did the critical event information come in? What do you do when one battalion chief in a podunk department won’t take orders from someone of lower rank who has been given authority in the combined response? And how does everyone know what responsibilities go with each job?

From a media and public communication standpoint, the problem was also serious. Who has the authoritative information? What is the public to think when one fire department PIO says the fire is 200 acres and another says it is 2000 acres?

The answer to this was the Incident Command System with it single command structure incorporating multiple agencies, its standardized jobs and job descriptions, its management principles such as span of control, and its insistence that rank or position outside of the response mean nothing when it relates to making assignments and reporting structure. It was brilliant and effective and has proven so in multiple responses since then. For communication, the same approach applied. The Joint Information Center, made up of PIOs from various agencies participating, established its own organization structure and information flows with the idea being to provide the single point of information, the single voice for the response. It too was effective and incredibly helpful in getting information out–relatively quickly, accurately, and without conflict or confusion.

When the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed after the ExxonValdez event in 1989, the Incident Command System along with the Joint Information Center was mandated for the oil industry. From that point on, the government agencies involved in a response–federal, state, local and tribal–would work in close collaboration with the Responsible Party–legally defined as the owner of the oil, not the one who caused the problem–under the Unified Command structure. Ultimately, it was the federal agency in the response, the Coast Guard for on the water events and EPA for on the land events, that held the trump card because they and only they had the option of “federalizing,” the event, that is pushing everyone else aside and taking direct control of all response activities.

OPA 90 further mandated that each company with facilities or vessels at risk of major incidences had to practice an ICS event, and every three years a “worst case scenario” event. I have been involved in planning, managing and evaluating many of these over the past ten years. The industry has spent hundreds of millions, perhaps several billion, in training, drilling, creating plans and driving this system deep into their organizations. As a result of all this work, industry response professionals and agency response managers learned to work together side-by-side in close collaboration. Extensive technology was developed to support the complex operations, technologies aimed at managing the ICS process with all its forms and procedures as well as managing the Joint Information Center and all its processes and requirements. That was the system I created, called PIER for Public Information Emergency Response. The Joint Information Center proved very effective in providing a coordinated information response enabling the media (and increasingly the public directly through incident websites) to get the best possible information, as quickly as possible from a single authoritative source.

Of course, that “single voice” didn’t necessarily play to the media’s interest in the blame game they inevitably must play. Here were the key players all standing side-by-side, providing the same information, not pointing fingers, not accusing the others, but working in concert in the public’s interest to get the job done.

In 2004 the Department of Homeland Security, under a presidential directive to create a national response structure, implemented the Incident Command System as that national response plan. It was one of the smarter things government has done. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, instead used something that was working exceptionally well and that many federal, state, local agencies and a few private companies had adopted and trained on already. DHS has invested billions in making this system effective and making certain that agencies at all levels use this system and prepare their responders to work in it effectively.

So far, so good. So why is it threatened?

The Deepwater Horizon event (that is what it was officially named by Unified Command at the beginning and all events require an official and single name), began as a typical NIMS/ICS event. BP, as the largest shareholder of the well with three owners, was named the Responsible Party. That means they were responsible for paying the bill and participating in the Unified Command structure. Unified Command was formed with the Federal On-Scene Coordinator as the Coast Guard and other agencies participating in accordance with OPA 90 and NIMs. A National Incident Commander was named as this was the first Spill of National Significance since that was designated again as part of OPA 90.

As is called for in all the plans, a Joint Information Center was set up as soon as Unified Command was formed. All the agencies came together, including BP, to unify the communications operation using PIER as the communication system that all would operate on. the years of experience that the Coast Guard and BP had with the system was a strong benefit in getting the JIC off to a strong start. Under NIMS and ICS rules, Unified Command has the final authority over all information released. No one involved in the response–no government agency, no private party, no contractor, no research vessel, no one — is to communicate outside of that structure. It is the only way of insuring a “single voice” and maintaining information discipline. The Sago Mine disaster was one example of where the loss of information discipline was exceedingly painful and caused unnecessary distress when JIC rules were broken. On the PIER JIC website, the logos of all the response agencies were displayed along with BP as the Responsible Party (RP in ICS lingo).

That is, until Sec. Napolitano arrived a couple of days into the event. Suddenly all agency logos were removed, the event was renamed the BP Oil Spill, and the messaging from Unified Command starting taking on a strategic intent to innoculate any federal agency from any blame and to focus all media scrutiny and public outrage on BP. While the logos returned a few hours later, I’m assuming after the Secretary was informed of how the National Incident Management System that her agency promulgates is supposed to work, and the original incident name response, the use of Unified Command for political messaging has never stopped from that point.

As I pointed out earlier, this messaging has gone through a couple of phases. First, the administration tried to avoid any blame by saying it was all on BP and it was the administration’s job to hold them accountable and put a boot on their neck. This was in direct opposition to the reality on the ground which was a Unified Command response all along, under the direct control of the coordinated federal agencies. But not a single reporter picked up on this. This shows how hopelessly out of touch the media are with the realities of NIMS and what Unified Command means. No one, none, challenge this strategy by even asking what the National Incident Commander was there for or asking what the role of a Federal On-Scene Coordinator was. Nor did they seem able to put two and two together to ask a question that if BP was doing everything, why are so many people in uniform so visible?

But what the administration apparently didn’t anticipate, aside from the fundamental dishonesty of this message, is that the calls would increase for the federal government to take over the response. Why are they letting BP run this thing when it clearly is failing? Why isn’t Obama stepping in to take charge. The pressure mounted until on May 28 at a press conference the president announced that well, actually, the federal government was in charge all along. Oh, said the press corp. The first question (and one of the first insightful ones) was if that is the case, why did the EPA send the letter to BP asking them to find different dispersants if the federal government was managing the response, including the use of dispersants all along? Exactly.

In the days since May 28, BP has been pushed from the scene publicly as far as communication is concerned. Now the federal government stands alone in the media appearances. And Unified Command messages have become more and more political in tone even while they continue to do their best to get the relevant information out about the event and the response activities. What do I mean by taking over the Unified Command messaging? Here is the primary release from the Unified Command on June 4:

Speaking alongside federal officials and Gulf Coast governors, the President sharply criticized BP for spending money on a public relations campaign.
“I don’t have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations,” the President said. “But I want BP to be very clear—they’ve got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done. And what I don’t want to hear is, when they’re spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they’re nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time.”

I have no objection whatsoever to this kind of messaging being issued by the White House media machine–it is perfectly appropriate for the president to say whatever he wants. But to use Unified Command as an adjunct to the White House communication operation means that Unified Command will likely never again be trusted by any private company or public agency that does want its reputation to reside in the hands of the administration.

What makes this doubly troublesome is the fact that BP has been very aggressive in claims management and a Unified Command release a day or two before this reported that BP had to date paid every claim it had been able to process. Not a single claim was denied and the announcement had just been made that BP had agreed to additional loss of income payments going forward. The accusation about nickling and diming was unfair and inappropriate if done from the Rose Garden, but to be done using the communication machinery of Unified Command will likely have long term devastating consequences.

Further, BP’s so-called PR campaign is to focus attention on the response website. While the media has been playing the administration’s game in lockstep, even while desperately seeking every day for a scoop to further inflame public outrage, those who get their information from the response website do have a substantially different picture of the response than those who get their information only from the media. I discovered this anecdotally when discussing the response. If someone was entirely negative about BP and the response, I asked if they had been to the website or subscribed to the updates. Those who had been to the site regularly were more critical of the media coverage, and those who had not were only critical of the response. Why wouldn’t BP in those circumstances want the public to know about this information source. The media was not pointing people to the site. Why would the administration find it a problem to want people to get their information directly rather than filtered through the media whose job is to get eyes on their screen every day on this story? And especially when the administration has highjacked the Joint Information Center and is using it for their political messages?

Yes, I am deeply disturbed about the future of the National Incident Management System, ICS, and the JIC. Since I am personally involved right now in writing plans for several of the major urban areas of the nation for how they come together in a major event to communicate in a coordinated way, it is a very relevant issue. What do I say to the Mayor’s office of a major city when they realize that if it is in the current administration’s best interest to focus the media’ blame game on them to avoid any blame falling on the administration, how can I convince them that they should stay within the information discipline bounds of NIMS? Since I’m also writing plans for other major oil companies, how can those plans be focused on participation in the JIC when it is most likely in a major event for that very tool to be used to an extreme degree against them and even used to criticize their own efforts to communicate how they are responding?

If there are others working on such plans and wondering what this means for your agencies,your regions or your company’s crisis communication plans under the National Incident Management System, I’d like to hear from you. Hopefully you can reassure me that it is not a significant issue, that I am reading this wrong, that once the “BP Spill” is over that life under NIMS will return to normal. However, if you are also concerned perhaps we can begin the discussion at some senior policy levels as to how to prevent this catastrophe (not talking about the spill here) from happening again.

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.

Reputation crises and political impact–Goldman and offshore drilling

There is almost always a link between major reputation crises and politics as I’ve written about in Now Is Too Late. It certainly was true in the first really major disaster I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline explosion, and it certainly is of two major crises events going on right now: Goldman Sachs and the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig event. Goldman’s problems will influence significantly the very important national debate on financial oversight. The Deepwater Horizon event will influence the debate on energy independence and expansion of offshore drilling.

Which means, of course, that the crisis managers involved in working these two humongous issues right now, will have a very significant impact on the long term decisions that elected officials will make in these two arenas. We talk about the importance of Supreme Court nominations because they will affect big decisions for years. Have we ever thought about executive and communication leadership in that way, thinking about how well they do their jobs may influence public policy on issues as important as what are the constraints government should put on greed, and how aggressively should we pursue energy independence?

A few thoughts on Goldman Sachs. Would they be aggressively pursued by the SEC if they had not had the gall to be so stinking successful in an economy and political environment that suddenly sees huge profits and executive payouts as a form of treason? I don’t want to downplay any illegal activity and it sounds like they may very well have done some things quite wrong–particularly related to providing disclosures to investors. That is serious stuff and if guilty I hope they receive the full measure of the law. But the Economist headline was right: Greedy until Proven Guilty. Greed is out. Frugalness and self-sacrifice when it comes to earnings is in. Part of this is because we love those who work hard, try to get to the top against insurmountable obstacles, but no sooner do they stand on the mountaintop alone and we start throwing stones, eagerly awaiting their fall. (I’ve blogged on this about Toyota long before they fell from the mountaintop.) Goldman’s problems with public opinion and reputation emerged well before the SEC investigation. They may go the way of Arthur Andersen who died not because of legal problems (which they won) but because they became so tainted in the public’s eyes that the stink attached to them infected anyone they did business with. It was the loss of customers that killed them. Goldman faces very much the same risk. If they don’t aggressively remove the stink, no one concerned about their reputation will want to get too close.

Stories are emerging now about BP’s reputation as it relates to the Deepwater Horizon event. (Full disclosure, BP is a client) Whether that is fair or not will be for the media and the public to decide. BP leased the drilling rig and is working exceptionally hard, as a member of the Joint Information Center for the response, to communicate aggressively, quickly and effectively. But, BP’s reputation, the reputation of the oil industry, the sentiment of people impacted by this event and the environmental damage will all factor into the discussion to come about the risks and benefits of deepwater drilling. Obama has announced his support for expansion. That support may be at risk if the outcry rises about this event. That’s why what those people involved in the response and the communication about the response are doing is so important. It’s also why it is important that the entire industry be involved in open, honest, rational debate about this event and its results. The tendency of the industry is to duck and hide and say, well, we produce oil and whether people like us or not they keep buying it. There are those in the industry who point to Exxon and say despite the reputation hit they took, they continue to be one of the most profitable, respected, investor-preferred companies around. No question that ExxonMobil is exceptionally well run. But there is no question that the reputation hit they took continues to cast a pall over the company and the industry. The cost to all of us as consumers of fuel products is much higher directly as a result of the careless attitude Exxon exhibited during the event and in the years following it. Higher because of regulation, because of lack of public support for anything perceived as favoring the industry, and because the industry continues to be a favored target (certainly in Washington State) for punitive taxes. All those add to energy costs which you and I pay. So I get angry with the industry communicators who say, see, it didn’t matter that Exxon’s reputation got hurt. Wrong.

I hope if you are an organization leader or a person charged with crisis management and communication responsibility, you will think about the link between reputation crises and politics. Because what you do to build or destroy trust will likely impact all of us. You have a heavy responsibility.

Oil platform disaster highlights some key lessons

The Deepwater Horizon oil platform 41 miles off the coast of New Orleans in the gulf is a disaster of major proportions. It’s looking increasingly like 11 men have lost their lives–the search goes on as I write this. But crude from the deep well is apparently continuing to gush from the incredibly deep well. Indeed, this half a billion dollar platform was one of the most technologically advanced in the world, digging farther off shore and deeper than almost any other.

This is an event that affects far more than the two oil companies involved. (Full disclosure, both PIER and O’Brien’s, our new parent company, are both actively involved in the response). This event will likely significantly impact every oil company with drilling and exploration operations and it may impact the nation’s increased willingness to drill for oil offshore to increase energy independence. Questions will arise about safety, about environmental risks, about response capabilities. They will focus around the critical issues of what could have been done better to save lives and the environment.

Just like other major events like this, there is a tendency for those on the sidelines to stare in wonder at the spectacle. Instead, those who are even peripherally related to this event need to go into action mode now. When the horrible shooting occurred at Virginia Tech, the local airwaves and national media were filled with stories about the lack of capability of our nation’s education administrators to protect those under their care with better warning systems. Every university president had to face questions from parents, from local media, from students and faculty about what was in place to notify students and if the answer was nothing, then why?

A crisis like the oil platform disaster operates like throwing a stone into a quiet pond. The closer you are to the stone hitting, the more disturbed the water. But ultimately it affects everyone in the pond.