Tag Archives: gulf spill

Politics, the spill and crisis management–an insider talks about the realities

I found this guest editorial in the Boston Globe by Juliette Kayyem to be quite remarkable. She was an assistant secretary of DHS during the Gulf Spill and since she no longer is, she speaks with surprising candor about what was going on behind the scenes with the political interference in the spill.

Here are some insights worthy of highlighting:

The disconnect between operations and politics:

In hindsight, it’s clear to me that there were two different responses to the spill — one political, one operational. Despite some fits and starts, the operational response largely worked. But it was the political response that garnered so much attention, and seemed so disconnected from what was going on day-to-day operationally.

Why the administration interfered:

Yet, the whole time, we were playing by a rulebook that no one could admit we were playing by. This was true not just for the White House, but for the governors and local leaders as well.

On the interference by the governors:

Not one of the Gulf governors — all of them Republican, at least two potentially running against President Obama in 2012 — would accept that his own experts had signed off on plans that, essentially, they no longer liked in the harsh light of day.

On the “boom wars:”

But boom was a quantifiable thing, and no governor could be seen as having less than the guy next door.

Just to summarize this a bit for the purpose of looking ahead. The ground rules she talks about, the use of the Incident Command System and the Joint Information Center established for oil spill response in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 were essentially tossed out by the administration. The reasons she provides–public expectations (I should add, driven by media intent on assigning blame) and political pressure by local and state officials resulted in overriding decisions by Incident Commanders to respond to political pressure (eg., boom wars). More than that, it meant throwing out all the rules for collaborative communication responsive to Incident Command with direct White House control on all response information. As the Coast Guard ISPR pointed out, this effectively shut down the communication operation, much to the harm of public trust.

I’ve asked myself this question many times since then–was this the best strategy for the Obama administration? He largely succeeded in avoiding the blame and the “Obama’s Katrina” label which was a serious risk. So, it looks like it was successful. But there were many others who paid the price for this, unfairly and unjustly in my mind. What if the administration had played by the rules? What if they had allowed the response to patiently explain to the reporters that if they wanted to understand how the response was being run they should do a little more investigation than looking at the latest tweets and understand why OPA 90 was set up the way it was. What if they were to explain that BP’s role was necessary, that the response was a collaborative effort under the supervision of the federal government, that the National Contingency Plan and the Area Contingency Plans worked out well in advance were being implemented and they were based on best science? What if they were to explain that boom is being placed where it will do the most good, rather than where Jindal, Nungesser and Tafaro were screaming for it, or where it would serve as a nice background for the president’s press conferences?

Regardless of how history ultimately treats the administration’s interference and throwing out the rules, as Kayyem accurately portrays, one thing is clear. Throwing out the rules has left the oil industry and the emergency management community in great confusion. What will happen next time when the federal government gets involved? Will we use the processes that the government has established, namely NIMS. Or will they once again, say that staying within NIMS is not in the administration’s best interest and just wing it? And what does winging it mean for those trying to respond on the local and regional level? What does it mean for oil spill response? What rules will be used and what does that mean for how they will communicate and try to build public trust?

BP moving from vermin to victim

My how the hatred flowed like the oil into the Gulf. BP was the evil foreign monster who ruthlessly, negligently, and with malice aforethought destroyed the environment, eleven lives and millions of livelihoods.

BP’s response was to accept full responsibility for the clean up and expenses, knowing full well there were other companies involved–Transocean, Halliburton, Anadarko and Mitsui just to name a few. And they absolutely opened up their check book. To the chagrin and concern of many others in the oil industry, they set a new standard for largesse as they battled the oil, the politicians, the press and the public. It turns out both a lot of politicians and members of the public were greedy and willing to take full advantage of the outrage heaped on the company to profit from it.

The extensive research and reporting done by ProPublica displays very clearly the ugly reality of an environmental disaster, especially when a company under such huge pressure is willing to do almost anything to try to make things right. The ugly reality is human greed and abuse of power. Craig Taffaro, along with Billy Nungesser his fellow Parish President, became somewhat of a hero, testifying before Congress and shown in the media spotlight as fighting for his people. Read the ProPublica story and decide what kind of hero he is.

From a crisis communication standpoint, this raises troubling issues. I felt throughout the event, and communicated it to the highest levels in BP I could, that it was necessary for them to be more aggressive in defending themselves against the viciousness of attacks from the media, politicians, and the public. Yes, there was a gigantic spill and it was a terrible accident and a huge mess. Yes, they were accepting responsibility and cleaning it up. But it doesn’t give people the right to say things they did, to spread rumors and lies, to attack them on every front on the flimsiest of excuses (remember the brouhaha over a photoshopped image–an innocent mistake with no sinister intent but blown into an example of BP’s deviousness).

Even now, as the attention of journalists is starting to shift to other bad guys in this story (Washington Post) BP is remarkably reticent to be more aggressive in its communication. Note its reluctance to provide information that would be damning to those who so brutally ripped them off. They may be right in doing so because the meta-narrative created by the media and supported by the politicians of the evil, bumbling giant is still very much with us. And those reporters seeking to highlight how BP is not just vermin but victim will so quickly turn on BP if they see any effort to remove the blackhat. It is in their best interests in terms of building audience to keep that blackhat firmly on BP’s head. However, there is also gain to made–much less so–from graying the hats of those they painted white in the midst of this event.

While public opinion remains fixed on BP’s evil, I am convinced that long term the story of the gulf spill will be one of a company verminized and victimized but who in general responded with exceptional generosity and a real commitment to make right a most horrific accident.


BP’s Neil Chapman and I discuss spill communications with Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson

I was pleased to be invited to discuss the Gulf Spill communications with BP’s Neil Chapman. And particularly pleased to have a discussion with two top-notch communication thought leaders–Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson. Their long-serving podcast (didn’t Shel invent the idea of podcasting?) “For Immediate Release” is a great place to learn from communication professionals about what’s going on and best practices.

I’ve had the great privilege of working with Neil Chapman for many years, starting back in about 2001 or 2002 when he was a lead crisis communicator for BP in Houston and I was trying hard to convince him that he needed this new tool I had created called PIER. Somehow, with the help of the Coast Guard really saying good things about it, I was able to convince him. Since then, we’ve walked through a few major events together. Neil is not only one of the most experienced crisis communication professionals anywhere he is one of the wisest and most gentlemanly people I know.

The hour went by too fast. Shel and Neville had great questions, of course, and Neil as usual was insightful, open and eager to share lessons learned. I hope you have the chance to listen to this podcast. There is no doubt that the Gulf Spill will change crisis communication for many years to come. I was interviewed by PRWeek this morning specifically on that topic, as to how it will change things. Listening to this podcast will help give you some ideas as to how much and how far reaching those changes will be.

When does it make sense to challenge erroneous media stories? A new strategy emerging.

I’ve seen the interchange often. A CEO or senior executive gets steamed by a negative story in the media. “Call the reporter! Call the editor, call the publisher!” they order their PR folks. And then the ultimate threat–“Call the advertising department, I’m canceling all my ads!”

The normal and expected response of the rational and experienced PR manager is to say, “Calm down, it really wasn’t so bad, and you’ll only make it worse by responding.” The ultimate argument always comes down to: “You don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

That’s conventional wisdom. But, is it right? Particularly, since the organizations who actually buy ink by the barrel are going out of business rapidly and those who are left seem to be getting by with as little ink as possible? What should the policy be about challenging inaccurate, misleading, or distorted media reports–including blogs.

I would like to challenge the conventional wisdom–with some caveats. There are times when it makes sense and times when it doesn’t–and it’s not easy distinguishing those. But a few factors to keep in mind:

– A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.
In the absence of any challenging information, incorrect information will stand. So, if someone says you are a liar and you stand their meekly without response, it doesn’t take too many times for those observing this to think, well, if he wasn’t a liar he certainly would have said something by now.

– The media herd mentality.
We’ve seen in almost all major news stories a sort of media herd mentality. You would think the competitive media environment would foster diversity in coverage, yet over and over we see a “me too” kind of reporting, sort of like the Hollywood sequel thing in hyper-time. So when a story hits that is juicy and attracts attention you can be quite sure that it will feed other outlets as well as social media sites for a while.

– Collective intelligence. The social media world is usually right about the facts. That comes as a surprise to the many who have been told that “you can’t believe anything that’s on the internet.” Maybe not at first, but through “collective intelligence” factual errors and errors of omission or spin are usually frequently corrected. It’s how wikipedia works–accuracy comes not from a single highly credible source, but multiple sources with multiple perspectives who contribute, contradict, correct and converse.

– Coverage is about conversation. Media stories are far more dynamic and involve much more interactivity today. Today there is a level of interactivity between what happens on our TV sets and what happens on the internet. We used to talk about convergence–between old and new media, between mainstream and social media. The convergence is virtually complete so a major news story stimulates conversation as online conversation stimulates major news stories.

In the Gulf Spill, as I mentioned here before, anyone involved in the spill was horrified at much of the inaccurate, infotainment oriented news coverage. Truth be told, I strongly encouraged spill communication leaders to take a much more aggressive approach to addressing some of the extreme examples of erroneous coverage. It was not done, and only now are some of the more extremes being revealed and discussed. But public opinion is essentially fixed permanently in part based on some poor and irresponsible reporting.  The problem was that those who had access to the facts and the truth, for various reasons, were unwilling to confront those who were running fast and loose with the truth.

What did I advise? I suggested a section be put on the response website (both BP and DeepwaterHorizonresponse.com) that would be called “Fact Check.” In this section, the blatantly incorrect or over-the-top media stories which led to public misunderstanding or confusion would be challenged. It would say, “XYZ Cable Channel said this, but the facts are…”

I’ve done similar things before in very difficult issue battles and saw it make a remarkable difference in media coverage. The reason is simple. It’s all about credibility. People will believe what they read and see if they see nothing that contradicts it. A lie becomes the truth. But when confronted with contrary information, all but the most jaded will say: “Hmm, I wonder who is telling the truth here?” If it is clearly demonstrated that the media story or blog is out to lunch on the facts or their treatment of the facts, their credibility is called into question. A serious reporter, editor or blogger cannot have their credibility questioned–not for long anyway.  Which means, if they understand that you are willing to challenge them on their reporting and that you will be completely fair, accurate, respectful in doing so, they will double check next time to make certain what they are saying is the truth and is not misleading. Failing to do so risks embarrassment and loss of credibility.

Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, the nation’s largest public utility, is one of those agencies that is frequently the subject of media reports and even more of blogs. Not everything written or reported is accurate. They recently implemented the “Fact Check” section on their newsroom website which does as I describe (full disclosure–DWP is a PIER client). Here’s what it looks like on their site:

I think this is done right, respectfully and I know they are fully committed to communicating the truth and maintaining credibility.

I said there were some caveats and maybe they go without saying:

– be credible — the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

– don’t heighten an issue unnecessarily–here is where the judgment call really comes in. Some things are better left untouched. But any issue, any false report, any irresponsible attack must be monitored closely to see if it is getting legs.

– be nice–there is some sage old advice that still works well: “a soft answer turns away wrath” and “be good to those who hate you” and “do unto others…” Don’t let your anger and frustration about unfair accusations and stories translate into your responses.

– know when to quit–I can see some of these “fact check” discussions going back and forth, each accusing the other of being dishonest. You have to know when to leave it lay. Another piece of advice I like: “When you wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it.”

My Daily Dog op-ed: Should PR publications be more analytical of media coverage?

While at PRSA I happened to run into Jim Sinkinson, the publisher of Bulldog Reporter’s Daily Dog online newsletter for the PR industry. It’s my understanding this is the leading online newsletter for PR folks with over 25,000 subscribers. I know I read it every day.

But as someone involved in a number of reputation crises, most recently BP, I have long been troubled by their take on the news coverage about the PR battles these companies face. It struck me that the normal approach was to take all the media reports at face value and then step up the outrage a notch or two. That’s what I conveyed (as sweetly and graciously as I could, which is probably not much) to Mr. Sinkinson. He very graciously said he would talk to his editor about it and I promptly received a very kind invitation to share my views with an op-ed piece.

Not only did they accept it, but today they ran it as the lead. Clearly the story line is and will continue to be that BP completely botched the PR around this event. And I agree they made some serious errors in both strategy and execution. But as I mention in my Case Study and in the numerous briefings I’ve been providing on the spill communications, there are seven major reasons why BP’s reputation has taken such a pummeling. Only the seventh has anything to do with their mistakes. The other six have to do with the kind of environment a company like BP operates in.

There is a great danger in C-suites and in the offices of PR and PA leaders to think that BP’s problems were totally of their own making. It may be comforting to think that way with the presumption that your organization’s leadership, or your decision-making, would prevent the kind of reputation melt-down that BP experienced. But, a head stuck in the sand may feel falsely protected as well. The reality is, the other six reasons would impact you similarly. BP could have done everything perfectly–indeed, they did much that was right–without substantial change in the reputation fix they are now in.

Clearly, the best way to plan to protect a reputation in today’s rough and tumble media/social media environment, is to make sure if you have a well 5000 feet below the surface that it doesn’t blow up, you don’t kill or hurt people, and if things do go very wrong, you have ways to stop the flow and clean up the mess very very quickly.

Gulf Spill propels technology advances in crisis communication

The communicators involved in the Gulf Spill are aggressively using technology of all kinds to help get the story of the spill and response out. We’ve seen that, particularly earlier on with this event, with their use of social media. One of the biggest is the use of live video feeds. I commented on this today on emergencymgmt.com. It is a virtual certainty that any kind of major event, particularly anyone drawing the kind of media and political activity that this one has, will require a live video feed. It will either be provided by those involved, or citizens will find a way to offer it themselves.

As I mention in the emergency management blog, high quality video production just got a whole lot easier. Citizen journalists are suddenly equipped with what used to take a gazillion bucks and a Hollywood studio full of artists and technicians.

Another example of technology being used to help the public get information was just released today: the widget. Add it to any website and it will give you a real-time feed of the latest news, tweets and links from the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com website.

Give it a try. Not just because it kind of slick and cool and will help keep you better informed of what is going on with this event, but because it will give you an idea of what you will have to be able to plan and manage if you find yourself deep in it.

Why media is so distrusted–and yet so believed

There have been well over a quarter of a million stories in the media (mainstream and new) about the Gulf spill. The vast majority of these have provided evidence for the very serious problems I have been complaining about for the past ten years.

I want to pick on just one story and see how it is covered as an example–not a particularly egregious example, but just one of thousands of similar examples every day!

(Again, full disclosure: BP, US Coast Guard, MMS and other agencies involved in this spill are clients through the company I founded, PIER System. PIER is the web management system used for the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com website. Perhaps this involvement affects my judgment about these matters–but look at the story themselves and make up your own mind.)

The story is this: Congressman Markey revealed that a previously unknown BP document revealed that the spill might release 100,000 barrels (4.2 million gallons) vs. the am0unt now estimated (60,000 barrels) and the original estimate of 1000 and later 5000 barrels. CNN last night on Don Lemon’s show told the story this way: BP knew that it was spilling 100,000 according to this document but instead lied and way under-estimated it. After two months of discrediting by the press, the president, the administration and every other politician who managed to get some air time, this new “news” was not going to surprise anyone. It was entirely believable–but was it true?

If you look a little closer at the news stories, things are not quite as they were presented by CNN. The CNN website report is far more careful than Lemon’s brief “headline news” reporting. This report shows that the referenced document was talking about a worst case scenario that might happen if the blowout preventer and the wellhead were removed. In other words, if all the equipment, pipes, and stuff down there were off and the well was left to spew without restriction, the maximum flow COULD BE 100,000 barrels.

The Reuters report on the same issue shows a different and important nuance: when the report was issued. CNN web report says this: A BP estimate made after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon noted that as much as 100,000 barrels per day could leak into the ocean… However, the Reuters report says the document is undated. I looked at the document, and I encourage you to do the same (find the link on the Reuters story).

Having some familiarity with the oil industry over the past ten years, there is little doubt in my mind that this is part of the planning for worst case scenarios for any problem with the well, and that it was prepared WELL BEFORE this event happened. Even if it was prepared after the event as CNN reported (without citing any evidence and in contradiction to the Reuters story), it still describes a scenario that currently does not apply to the event.

Now, let’s take a look at what one of our esteemed elected officials says about this, Congressman Markey. Please note that he was given the incredibly powerful bully pulpit of NBC’s Meet the Press to make these statements based on the “evidence” he uncovered:

“It is clear that, from the beginning, BP has not been straightforward with the government or the American people about the true size of this spill. Now the families living and working in the Gulf are suffering from their incompetence,” he added.

“Right from the beginning, BP was either lying or grossly incompetent,” Markey told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “First they said it was only 1,000 barrels, then they said it was 5,000 barrels.”

This is an extreme characterization based, in my opinion, on two big lies: 1) Any estimates about the spill volume came from Unified Command, not BP. The insistence by the media that it was BP providing the spill volumes shows a complete ignorance of the Unified Command structure. This structure, required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, was implemented in the hours after the event. Any information released after Unified Command was implemented was approved by Unified Command which consisted of all agencies responding including Coast Guard, NOAA, EPA, state agencies, etc. While BP may have provided the technical information at that time, it was Unified Command that was responsible for accepting that information and providing it as the best estimate. It is important to remember that initially the platform was still there, and initially the riser or pipe leading from the blowout preventer was kinked. The wellhead was not bare, the blowout preventer was there, the equipment restricting the flow was there. The initial estimate was based on the best information available at the time.

The second lie is that by digging up technical documents that describe conditions that do not apply, that were most likely provided well in advance, and that instead show that BP was realistically assessing conditions were worst case scenario might apply, and to use that to say they are lying is extremely dishonest. It is Congressman Markey, clearly one of about 500 or so national legislators right now trying to make as much political hay as they can out of this disaster, who is lying, not BP and, more importantly, not Unified Command who remains responsible for estimating spill volumes.

(Later add: it’s interesting the way the LA Times dealt with this story–there is just a hint that maybe it was Markey who was incompetent and out of line here, and note the headline about politicians making waves.)

I described in my book, Now Is Too Late, now nearly 10 years old, how enterprising politicians, looking to leverage off public fear and outrage work in concert with the press. The press is fighting for audience. CNN leads its newscast last night with another story of how BP is evil incarnate. And it is “proven” by this Congressman who wants to show his constituents how tough he is on this horrible company.

Does this kind of thing tick me off? Sure, and not just because my clients are being harmed by it. It should tick off every American who is interested in the truth and what is fair and right. As I mentioned, this isn’t an isolated example–this is what is happening every day. BP and to some degree MMS and other federal agencies, including the president, are victims of it today. I am as sickened by how Fox News is trying to pin this event on the president as I am by the kind of coverage and political attacks that I described above. But this is our system, folks. We have it because apparently we want it. They deliver the news we want because the ratings tell them all they need to know.

I’ve made numerous presentations to other oil companies in the last few weeks. I point out to them that they, like BP, start out a horrible event like this in a deep deep hole. They do not have the trust of the public. In fact, I point out that there is only one industry that has less public trust. Ironically, it is the media business. If Congress were considered an industry, I’m guessing they would be even lower than that.

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.

"Never let a good crisis get away"–Sierra Club

While there is no doubt truth to the idea of striking while the iron is hot, this comment today by one of the leaders of the Sierra Club is one of the dumbest things I’ve heard said about the Gulf Spill. The New York Times today included this comment:

“You don’t want to let a good crisis get away,” said Athan Manuel, the director of lands protection for the Sierra Club’s legislative office, which is pushing for a permanent moratorium on new offshore drilling.

I’ve been struck by the stories coming out of the Gulf region of the many families devastated by this horrible event. To think that anyone would consider a tragedy of this nature to be a “good crisis” is just unthinkable. I guess it shows the “true believer” mentality that says anything is good that supports their goals or agenda. Certainly the environmental leaders and organizations will take full advantage of the failure of this well to push their agenda. But to be exultant in this tragedy because of how it supports their goals is, well, unconscionable to me.

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.