Tag Archives: ICS

Post mortem on BP’s PR demonstrates dangers of commenting in the dark

Bloggers like me often comment on how organizations are dealing with crises. I do often with a sense of dread knowing that I really don’t know what is going on inside and may not be aware of critical issues that are affecting the response.

That danger was highlighted to me to the extreme when I read today’s comments by Deborah Watson on PR Daily’s blog. My biggest concern is by getting the facts so wrong, the real lessons to be learned from BP’s reputation problems are missed, and therefore those interested will likely take away the wrong things.

I’ll comment on each of the five points she raises as BP’s biggest blunders. (Her comments are italicized).

1. Failure to prepare.

One of the comments made many times by analysts was how little the company seemed to be geared up to handle a crisis of this nature.

Given the type of industry, one would have thought that even the simplest analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats would have pointed to this such disaster as a possible scenario, around which the comms team should have always been prepared to respond.

However big your company, knowing your areas of crisis susceptibility is vital.

Nothing could be further from the truth. BP’s preparations were extensive, in part because they are mandatory. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all oil companies are required to conduct annual drills, called PREP drills, along with local, state and federal agencies. Every three years they are required to conduct a worst case scenario drill, and every so often participate in a national exercise called the SONS or Spill of National Significance. BP took preparations exceptionally seriously, including the crisis communication side. It is true, that the combination of factors that led to a uncontrolled release a mile beneath the gulf surface was not properly contemplated.

And here is the real lesson to be learned: Don’t just drill the last big event. Use your imagination, no holds barred, to envision scenarios beyond anything you think possible. This was certainly one of those. The problem was not lack of preparation, but lack of imagination. I suspect most companies have that problem as well.

2. Manipulation (or lack of true knowledge) of the facts.

In the first stages of the crisis, the company went to the press saying that the spill was only to the tune of around 1,000 barrels a day. It turned out the stat was five times the amount, but even then, company spokespeople downplayed the figure.

Knowing the facts and taking time to confirm them is imperative if you’re going to face the press to speak about your crisis. It ensures credibility from the outset. 

This is one of the greatest false accusations against BP and simply demonstrates lack of understanding of how the Oil Pollution Act works and how the Incident Command System works. Immediately after an event like this occurs (initially the event was the explosion on the platform, it was not until the platform was flooded with water and collapsed did the major spill occur) the ICS kicks in. Local, state and federal officials work directly with the Responsible Party (owner of the oil) and operate in a structure called Unified Command. UC has authority over everything, including releasing information. While all are equal, the FOSC (federal on-scene coordinator) is more equal than the others and if not satisfied can “federalize” the response. Together they are responsible for the release of information about the amount being spilled. The truth is initially the spill volume was limited for reasons I just mentioned and it was ultimately the Coast Guard Incident Commander who bore final authority for the release of the information. When BP was asked about this later, they commented that the spill volume didn’t matter in terms of the response because they treated it from the beginning as if it was unlimited. That’s the fact. They sent out a global call for all boom they could get their hands on.

There are two real lessons to be learned here: 1) Be very cautious at the early stages about any characterization of the event because the media and others (such as commentators) will be quick to use any error here to undermine your credibility. A better example of underestimating and the high cost involved is the Cosco Busan spill. Here is was really underestimated with serious reputation consequences. 2) Correct the misreports. This story went out right away about BP underestimating the volume. One discussion I had with both government communicators and BP during the event was to be much more aggressive in pointing out and correcting wrong reports and conclusions. But that violates old PR rules and they were reluctant to do that. I am more convinced than ever, and this repeated “mistake” makes it clear, that fact checking is one of the most important responsibilities of a communicator.

3. Lack of compassion.

The comments of CEO Tony Hayward have certainly gone down in history. Lives had been lost in the crisis and the implications environmentally and economically were huge for many – but he wanted his “life back.”

This comment garnered disgust and annoyance from the press and the public. Choose your messaging and your spokesperson wisely.

This one is particularly irritating to me, probably because I knew a lot of the people involved. I know how they were hurting. I know the compassion and sorrow they felt for the loss of life and for the environmental damage. And I know how hard they tried to communicate that in an incredibly hostile media and political environment.

But, at the same time I used Tony Hayward’s quote and his subsequent loss of position often in presentations and writing to demonstrate the importance of always staying on message. But blaming this on an uncompassionate company and uncompassionate CEO is just plain wrong, and again misses some very important lessons.

1. A hostile public, media and political environment. The real PR disaster that BP faced was the fact that they spilled oil into the gulf in full view of the entire world for 90 days without being able to stop it. No lipstick will make that pig look good. Then you had an administration which, determined to avoid the Katrina blame placed on President Bush, took every opportunity to heap outrage on BP–often very dishonestly. Add to this the fact that few have much sympathy for Big Oil–huge lessons in that alone. So to me the real lesson was that BP was unwilling to be more aggressive and independent in their public communication until well into the event. When I questioned them during the event about this the answer was until the spill is contained we don’t feel we can say much. But that 90 days were devastating and while the 20 years under OPA 90 prior to the spill practiced cooperative communication with government officials, the hostile approach the administration took required a much more independent and aggressive communication response.

The second important lesson is to limit the exposure of your CEO and spokesperson. I have counseled many after this that the primary face of an event of this nature should be someone in the organization who is operationally expendable. That sounds terrible. But the reason is that sooner or later something may be said that the vicious media will hang on to to hang the spokesperson and company. Hayward’s problem is that he became a bit of a media rock star, making himself visible and available on almost a 24/7 basis. Clearly he did not want to make the mistake of Exxon’s CEO in not even showing up to the scene. But that 24/7 media access meant it was only a matter of time that he would provide an out of context sound bite that would kill him. It’s a dirty shame that the context of the interview is missed. He was trying to communicate how devastating the event was to him and the company. But that one sound bite: “I want my life back” was used (abused) to create an impression of lack of compassion. All the expressions of deep concern and compassion he had previously made were lost. The lesson: use an expendable spokesperson and limit exposure time to enable them to stay completely on message.

4. Deflection of blame.

BP made a big point of the fact that the rig was owned by Transocean, and in so doing, came across as trying to deflect responsibility.

Sure, mention other parties, but in so doing, provide a shared collaborative message around how you are all doing your best to resolve matters swiftly.

For BP, it came across as if the company was trying to buy wriggle room.

This one is also very irritating. As the provider of the web-based communication system that both BP and the Coast Guard used, we were contacted very soon after the event began. In those first confusing minutes and hours it was not known exactly what happened or who was responsible. The fact is that the rig belonged to Transocean. It is an important response question because under OPA 90 (Oil Pollution Act of 1990) the owner of the oil is the responsible party. But it was quite soon after the initial event that BP assumed the actual responsibility under the Act, and launched a response website along with the Coast Guard.

One of the big lessons to be learned is there is a big difference between legal responsibility and public responsibility. The truth is, as courts determined, the spill responsibility was shared by BP, Transocean and Halliburton who supplied the failed cement. That being said, BP always and over and over and over said in their public statements that they were assuming full responsibility for the response. What became a problem was when they were called to testify to Congress. Congressional testimony is quasi-judicial and therefore would play heavily in the legal case assigning damages. So in that testimony they were far more careful in accepting responsibility and of course this was jumped on by the media despite the repeated statements of accepting full responsibility for stopping the spill and cleaning up the mess.

The lesson in this is not the BP tried to avoid responsibility, but that the legal and communication team need to work together as much as possible (before an event if at all possible) to recognize and understand the challenges this issue of liability and responsibility pose. The biggest lesson is, as mentioned above, BP should have been far more aggressive, and righteously indignant, about the reports suggesting they were ducking responsibility. The message should have been: we don’t know and we won’t know for a long time who his legally responsible, but we do know and all our actions are demonstrating it, that we don’t care about that issue right now, as we are taking full and complete responsibility to deal with this disaster.

5. Being angry and unavailable.

Many felt that BP came across as annoyed with the press interference, and that leaders were much much less available in terms of updates and commentary than they might have been.

Keeping your audience in the loop, at regular intervals, helps to no end with credibility. It shows you are keeping communication going and that you have not forgotten your level of responsibility or the fact that so many are now relying on you for answers.

I really have no idea where Ms Watson is coming from on this one. Perhaps it was the huge issue made by the press that BP was keeping responders from talking to the media. The protocol in an ICS response with a Joint Information Center operating is to have media questions directed to the JIC. When some responders on the beach told reporters they were told not to talk to them, the press incorrectly reported that BP was hiding information. In reality, BP was not controlling media access and at that time it was the White House who was dictating media messages and policy. However, the issue became severe enough that Admiral Allen, the National Incident Commander, issued a Media Policy that stated everyone can talk to the media but were to keep their comments restricted to their particular area of responsibility. The real lesson is that following this event, this is exactly the kind of media access policy that should be adopted, not the outdated one that said refer everything to the spokesperson.

BP was part of the JIC for the first month a half. Then they were kicked out of the JIC by the White House and it became, as CNN called it, “talking points from the administration.” BP always made itself available, but did not aggressively and proactively defend itself believing, incorrectly I believe, that until the spill was contained, it was best they let the government speak for the response. By that time the reputation damage was done and BP suffered under a false impression of not being forthcoming.

Again, a major lesson, particularly for private companies operating in a JIC environment, is be prepared to go independent and be prepared for the political leaders involved to inoculate themselves by aiding the media in heaping blame and outrage. It is still far better, and it would have been better all around, if the government and BP could have remained in the JIC and communicated the message that they were in it together. No such luck here. But to blame political decisions about how to best form public opinion on BP is again to misunderstand the fundamental situation.

OK, my rant is over. I do not blame Ms. Watson snor do I wish to leave the impression that I think her analysis of the PR problems is wrong. What this points out to me that without knowledge of what is really happening, and making judgments based on media reports is almost certain to lead to misunderstandings. It would be better (and this is a lesson for me as an occasional commentator on others’ crises) is to say: based on how the media reported the story, it looks like this, and given these reports, this is how the company should have or should respond.






Blending of comms into response–what should it look like?

In my eleven issues for 2011 post, one of the items referred to what I see as the inevitable coming together of external communication and operational response. This triggered this thoughtful blog from James Garrow, who until today I only knew as “Jimmy Jazz.” Have greatly enjoyed the interaction with “Jimmy” on this blog and appreciate his insight on these issues of real importance to the future of NIMS, ICS and response management.

For those not jumping to his blog post (which you should), here is a relevant comment:

I advance the idea that today’s media environment is completely different than the media environment that ICS was developed in. Aside from increasing capacity (see: incorporation of the Joint Information Center, media center and ESF 15), there has been no fundamental change in how PIOs act within the ICS structure. I wonder if the change in how the world interacts with the public information component of modern organized response should necessitate changes in how modern organized response creates and disseminates public information. Has public information become part of operational response?

I’ve talked with colleagues at the local and federal level about this idea, (start ICS) about moving public information out of the Command staff and placing them under the Operations Chief (end ICS). No one thought it was a good idea. They felt that the direct relationship between the Incident Commander (IC) and PIO was vital to speed information releases. But I find that there is already talk in social media circles about how getting social media messages approved by the IC is too slow, so I don’t see how that relationship will continue to be sacred.

For my part I tend to agree with Patrice Cloutier who commented on Garrow’s post that the fear would be loss of PIO influence over Command decisions. If anything, that influence is almost certain to expand. However, I completely agree with James’ observation that the world in which ICS was created does not resemble the world we currently live in regarding public information. Public and political sentiment already is substantially impacting response decisions and will only grow in the future. Communication in this world is not one way linear flow of bare facts. It is a complex interaction, a conversation occurring at multiple levels. That conversation needs to become embedded not just in Command or Operations, but in every element of the response. How to do that will be the big challenge for influential response professionals and policy makers.

A Fire Chief asks: Does ICS stand for "Information Communications Standstill"?

I’ve know Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd for almost ten years–ever since we worked together on the Olympic Pipeline explosion, the event that got me into this crisis communication business. Since then I’ve not only come to respect him for his leadership skills and Incident Command capabilities, but for his deep and personal experience with managing information in this instant news/social media world. Bill was a Public Information Officer before he became chief, but more than that as Chief he has set some high standards for effective public information management including during the H1N1 crisis and the massive floods last year in the Pacific Northwest.

I asked Bill to speak Incident Commander to Incident Commander about the realities of today’s information environment. I hope advice, earned through hard experience, will be passed on to every Incident Commander, executive, fire chief, police chief and anyone else who will make decisions during a major event. (By the way, for those not familiar with ICS, it stands for Incident Command System, otherwise now known as NIMS or National Incident Management System. It requires Command approval of all information before release and consequently can substantially slow information distribution without taking Bill’s advice.)
Chief Bill Boyd:

Does ICS stand for “Information Communications Standstill”?

As I am typing this my Twitter monitoring site is logging messages by the second about the huge earthquake off the coast of Chile.  I am looking at pictures and comments from earthquake survivors, their relatives and others monitoring this disaster within seconds of being posted.  The speed and amount of information being disseminated right now is staggering, and I am contributing to this situation by relaying pertinent information to my followers through Facebook, Twitter and PIER Systems (which also posts immediately to my city’s internet news web site).

This unfolding and widespread crisis highlights the importance of strategic agility, speed and accuracy in disseminating information during a high visibility emergency event.  As a Fire Chief and Incident Commander for a regional incident management team, I recognize the need to immediately implement and use all available information tools and resources to push accurate information out to the public. How many of you with Incident Commander responsibility understand this?

The days of  a Public Information Officer (PIO) sitting down at a computer and generating a two paragraph media release a couple of times a day, and an interview here and there are gone.   If you still think this is all the PIO really has to do then you might as well give them an old typewriter and carbon paper. As an IC, I “define the box” the PIO will operate within (giving them the flexibility and boundaries to immediately release information without me having to approve it).  The IC needs to immediately set policy, validate key real time message concepts and then do the most important thing- let the PIO loose to do their job.  As an IC in this day and age, I can ill afford to get further behind the information dissemination curve (assuming we are already behind thanks to social media, camera cell phones, etc…).

This also means PIOs must be skilled in creating short messages, and relaying them in the most succinct way (how would you relay an evacuation order on Twitter?).  In the major events I have been involved with over the years, this type of messaging was not available.  Now, it is the preferred method of communication by many.  Yet, it remains foreign to many in the emergency response community.

IC’s need to wake up and realize the impact of the explosive growth of social media and the resulting expectation for immediate and accurate information.  If the public does not get it from Incident Command they will get it from somewhere else, relay inaccurate information and/or undermine your authority by venting their frustrations about lack of information.

Hey PIOs! How prepared are you in quickly shaping and distributing messages during a dynamic crisis event?  If you are still using the “media release” tool as your primary method of distributing information, I suggest signing up for a free social media site and see how people are really communicating news and information.  It is time for those of us with incident command authority to not only recognize the power of these tools and the resulting culture change, but more importantly take the steps to establish policy, secure training, and prepare to quickly deploy these tools during a crisis event.

Scaling up an ICS response and the challenges of ESF15

First, I confess this topic may be a bit esoteric for a number of crisisblogger readers. But those who deal with the alphabet soup of NIMS, ICS, JIC, PIOs, and ESF15, this could be (I say should be) a hot topic.

Here’s some quick background, then I have a question for those who have experience in dealing with this topic. In March 2003, the Department of Homeland Security created a National Incident Management System (NIMS) that required all response agencies to use the Incident Command System and its communication function, the Joint Information Center, when responding to an incident when multiple government agencies were involved.

While ICS structure and training has been pretty much standardized, the Joint Information Center (and its procedural definitions sometimes referred to as Joint Information System or JIS) has used several different and evolving models. This has been simplified (in my mind) with the introduction in Nov 07 with the FEMA PIO Guidance Manual-which very closely resembles the NRT JIC Model which in my understanding has been the primary guidance for most involved in JICs since it was introduced in 2000.

The JIC has one overriding function and objective–to be the single voice of the response. That means, according to all plans except ESF15, all communication to all audiences about the response is managed by the JIC. The one complication under this model was the “Liaison Officer” function who had responsibility for communication with those from other agencies not on scene or immediately involved in the response.

This “one voice, one message” to multiple audiences was a key component of the JIC and PIER’s (full disclosure–PIER is the communication management tool used by many PIOs and JICs around the country to help manage JIC functions and I am the founder and CEO) benefit was strongly related to the single button concept whereby all audiences (neighbors, elected officials, executives, media, investors, employees, etc.) could be simultaneously informed of the latest info. Efficiency is one big benefit, but more importantly is the understanding that each of these audiences are very demanding of the information and to manage them separately means that problems will occur relating to timing and perception of favoritism.

ESF15 defines the JIC not as the voice of the response, but one part of the External Affairs function that includes 7 different components. The JIC is restricted to dealing with the media–while the responsibility of dealing with tribal concerns, community relations, private companies, legislative matters is removed from the JIC and divided up with different people responsible and presumably a different organization for each group. Even more surprising to me, the job of information gathering and message strategy is also pulled out of the JIC and a separate organization with separate leadership is required for this.

ESF15 is the law of the land. It absolutely defines how the federal government will deal with a large scale response. There are some very positive aspects to this, but my concern, since we are deeply involved in this business is how do you transition from a JIC defined in the FEMA PIO Guidance Manual sense to an ESF15 structure.

Here is where I would like some help. If any of you dealing with this subject have insights into how this works–particularly how it actually has worked in a large scale event or even drill, I would be most interested in hearing about it. Mark Clemens from WA State EMD has been very helpful in showing how his department prepares for this transition. Essentially, as the event scales up, a liaison person is designated as the lead for each of those critical groups I mentioned, such as tribal and community relations. That person not only coordinates closely with the JIC in communication and issues of concern to the group he/she represents, but is well positioned to transition to the federally appointed person to head that function.

I can see this working and is very helpful, but I remain very concerned that the very efficiency of coordinated communication management being built into the technology will be undermined by the natural human desire to protect turf. “What do you mean you sent out the latest fact sheet update to the community leaders? How could you do that? That is MY job!” And I guess that is my real question. Given the natural turf wars that unfortunately seem to me to built into the new structure, how should those be managed when what is most critical is getting the right information to the right people right now?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I apologize for the excessively long post.