Tag Archives: JIC

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.

 

 

 

 

 

NanoNews—understanding the new news environment

Struggling with what comes after “instant news,” I’ve tried to come up with a way of describing the dramatic change in real time information sharing that was powerfully demonstrated in the Boston manhunt. For better or worse, I’m using “NanoNews” to describe it.

I created a video in lieu of an in-person presentation I was invited to make at the National Capital Region’s Social Media in Emergencies conference. That presentation was just concluded so now I’m sharing this with you.

In 2001, when I wrote the first version of “Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News” I used the term instant news to help communicate that news cycles were gone, that as fast as news helicopters could get overhead the news of your event or disaster would be live on the air. I was thinking of the ubiquitous breaking news as well as the already emerging trend of sharing information via the Internet—at that time primarily through email.

But compared to the “instant news” we have today, “breaking news” corresponds more to snail mail. It’s practically dead and gone, and not just through over-use. When millions are tuned into the police scanner chatter broadcast live through Ustream or converted into a Reddit thread using websites like Broadcastify or scanner apps like 5_0 Scan, it’s obvious that breaking news can’t keep pace. By the time even the fastest news crews get the information from such sources, and relay it, it will be minutes old—and minutes old is unacceptable when you could have real time information.

Nano News is almost certain to grow. Mobile smartphone use continues to grow. Over one billion worldwide and a hundred million in the US.  That number will grow. And though they are called “smartphones” telephone use is actually quite small and diminishing—this report shows how these devices are actually used.

In the video I suggest that this widespread use of mobile devices to access events of interest constitutes a form of teleportation. Your senses, your ability to experience, is transported to the scene through the ever increasing use of real time information sharing usually from the “crowd” or non-professional sources.

The implications for emergency and crisis communications are immense. I was quite surprised to see a new study from PwC, which according to a press release of August 8: “more than half of the respondents – 57 percent – do not officially use social media as a crisis management resource.  For companies that have begun integrating social media into their crisis management efforts – Facebook and Twitter cited the most often – not all are seeing improvement in their capabilities. Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents are modestly leveraging it as a tool, but not necessarily seeing improvements in their capabilities, whereas eight percent of respondents believe that social media has become an enabler for their organization to proactively identify and respond to crisis events. “

That is quite stunning to me—raises a question as to whom within the organization the questions are addressed—IT?

In the video I made several observations which generated some comment and discussion with the group gathered in DC. One is that today in crisis communication you can NOT be fast enough. Only if facts or details are completely hidden (almost impossible these days) can you really control what goes out and when. If you can’t provide the relevant information what can you do? You can make sure what is said and gets traction is correct. Rumor management is job one. And it requires great speed, which means that Twitter is the numero uno media management tool. It’s not the only tool to use to be sure. But if you want the media and most informed public to know the truth, you better know what is being said and be very quick in correcting false information.

It seems the biggest issue confronting communicators is approvals. We had some valuable discussion about that during the conference and I was quite pleased to see that the separation of incident/response facts from organizational messages seems to be taking hold. Not everything to be released needs the same level of approval. As one pointed out, it requires trust in the PIO—but also a clear understanding prior to the event about releasable facts vs. key messages requiring approval—and the vast gray area between.

The experiment in presenting and discussing with a crowd across the country through Hangout went very well I thought (I’ll have to hear from those who were there). I think this will be far more common in the future. As is the case with these events it was helpful for me to learn from those who are practicing this stuff every day. But the discussion only confirmed that NanoNews is a vital reality and it is one that progressive communicators and emergency management leaders are coming to grips with—and that is good news.

 

Joint Information Center–Arkansas pipeline spill adds to uncertainty about government response communications

Most government communicators who need to respond to emergencies need to understand the Joint Information Center (JIC)concept. Private companies,  particularly those likely to collaborate with government response organizations should (but often don’t) know about the JIC (pronounced JICK). As an adjunct to the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command System, the JIC has become standard procedure for coordinating public information when multiple agencies or entities are involved.

But, this well-honed and highly effective system was undermined first in the aftermath of Katrina when the Department of Homeland Security came out with Emergency Support Function 15 for External Affairs. Without going into details, as a structure for coordinating communications among multiple agencies, this was a complete joke. As a means to allow the White House to assume complete control of the communications in a disaster, it was and is highly effective.

For 20 years, after ExxonValdez, the oil industry and Coast Guard practiced the JIC procedures in annual drills. So when Deepwater Horizon occurred in April 2010, it was natural that a JIC was established with all parties including BP. At the end of May that year, everything changed. Media and political pressure on the White House threatened another Katrina-like political blowback and they responded with implementing ESF 15 and threw BP out of the communications. Ever since then, the status of the JIC has been uncertain and those needing to know how the feds will organize communications when they are involved in responding has been confusing.

Now the Arkansas Mayflower pipeline spill is adding to the confusion. Not everyone may be interested in the JIC, its future, and how to coordinate communications among multiple government agencies, but if you are, I suggest you have a close look at what is going on. Lots of questions raised, and since I blogged on it over at Emergency Management, I won’t repeat myself.

The good thing here is that ExxonMobil (a former client and user of PIER) appears to be doing an exceptionally thorough job of communicating. But, the position taken (or not taken) by members of Unified Command in the JIC which appears to be completely led by ExxonMobil is what is causing confusion.

The point to me is this: what creates public trust? Does a JIC led by the Responsible Party create trust? No, not when the government is seen as second tier player. Does the JIC led by the government and where the Responsible Party is thrown under the bus lead to trust? No. The only thing that really contributes to trust is good, fast, accurate honest information coming from a collaborative team that reiterates “we are in this together.”

I hope the old JIC concept comes back and sooner than later.

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.

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.

Incorporating social media into communication drills and exercises

Drills and exercises are at the core of almost anyone’s crisis response preparations–as they should be. I’ve been involved recently in preparing communication drills and exercises (usually JIC or Joint Information Center drills). I’m finding a lot of PIOs and communicators need real help in this area.

I blogged about this yesterday at my new blog on www.emergencymgmt, so you might want to check that out. But here are a few more observations about this important topic.

1) Incident commanders, communication heads (PIOs in the public world) and drill planners typically want to stay away from social media in drills and exercises. Very good reason for this–it is a strange new world and the last thing you want to do is embarrass yourself in front of a bunch of other people who are looking to you as the expert. Why throw in what is seen as an unnecessary complication when you have enough stuff to deal with that will test you and the participants to the max?

2) Social media drives communication. That’s why it must be included because no drill today will be at all realistic if it doesn’t include a strong social media element. Many will be shocked by the statement that social media drives communication. That’s because they are still living in an old world where they think the media will be waiting on them for hours to tell them what is happening so they can tell the world. The reality is, the cellphone camera eyewitnesses, tweeters, bloggers and facebook pagerers (OK I’m making up words again) will be telling the world every little detail of what they see and know or speculate. And the media will be following them avidly and reporting what they are saying because after all, they are not social media nerds, they are eyewitnesses. Why wouldn’t the media report their observations? If you have any doubt, look at media coverage of the Flight 1549 (airliner in Hudson) accident.

3) Monitoring and rumor management are now a primary if not THE primary role of the JIC. Another controversial statement I will stand behind all day long. That’s because the JIC will NEVER beat all those citizen journalists with the news. Heck, the New York Times with news alerts can’t even come close, nor can any legit news channel. Can’t be done. Add the complication of setting up a JIC, getting it operational, gathering info, getting it approved and getting it distributed. Nope, the instant news will come via cellphones and tweets. BUT, a lot of that will be wrong, or incomplete, or inaccurate (Actually turns out to surprisingly accurate but I’ll save that for another blog). That means that the JIC needs to know continuously what is being said, not just in the media, but in the social media world in order to very quickly get on top of it and correct misinformation. Fast, efficient rumor management is the real name of the game, and it starts with effective monitoring.

4) Drill injects must include social media. Since social media will undoubtedly be very involved in any major crisis or event, it simply is not realistic to plan a communication exercise without it. Drill injects need to include how the JIC will deal with phony Twitter accounts (a very real problem–see blog here about MobilExxonCorp). It needs to deal with bloggers with agendas and willing to challenge credibility of the JIC. It needs to deal with the reality of instant info that is evolving much faster than approvals within Command but that are true and verifiable. It needs to deal with innocent but incorrect and potentially harmful information–the most common real problem. That means that those planning the JIC element of the exercise must be knowledgeable about these new realities and how they play out in real events.

5) The JIC should use social media for distribution. This gets tricky because it is a drill afterall. But you want to replicate as much as possible the process of distributing instant updates via Twitter, posting videos to YouTube, images to Flickr and updating a JIC facebook page. For PIER users this is pretty easy since PIER is now set up to treat all these channels as another point of distribution–the only thing you change is not complete the last step of making the actual RSS connection–but this is getting too technical. Give me a call if you want more details on how to effectively replicate social media use in a drill with PIER or without.

No crisis preparation can be complete without a good drill. But, no drill today is complete without the social media element. I suspect some drill planners, ICs and PIOs are going to be very unhappy with me for saying this. Just the truth.

The JIC and Snopes

I’ve got a few friends who keep sending these jokes and internet messages–you know, the kind that say send this to five gazillion of your friends or something really bad will happen to you. Very often the messages include urban legends–like the one I got the other day about cell phones causing popcorn to pop. Very convincing. Had links to videos showing these people putting three or four cell phones aimed at a few kernels of popcorn. They made the phones ring and wait, wait, yes! the corn started popping. Of course, the comments on the email trail sounded very concerned–if this is the kind of radiation these things put out, no wonder people are dying of brain tumors from cell phones!

Well, I went to snopes to check it out and sure enough, along with the legend of cell phone cooking eggs, there was the legend of popcorn. False. Snopes is a wonderful thing. I advised my friend who sent this to me, as I have advised several others, before passing these things on it is good to check them with snopes. Saves some real embarrassment.

What does this have to do with the JIC?

I’m up to my eyeballs in writing EPIA (Emergency Public Information Annex) including detailed JIC plans. If anybody believes in the JIC and its value I do. But I am concluding that as much as we try to put in place the processes that will allow the JIC to put out emergency information to the public very fast, it will never be fast enough in this world. The media and the informed public will ALWAYS go to the most immediate information. That’s exactly why Twitter is so popular right now. Nothing beats the immediacy of someone who just saw a plane crash and is tweeting and twitpicing the image. Even the fastest JIC can’t beat an eyewitness with a text message or a video. So if you can’t beat or even meet the speed of news about an incident, and the mass media and a good part of the public will go to whoever has the most up to date information, will the JIC even survive? As I have said repeatedly recently to clients and in presentations–be fast or be irrelevant. Is the JIC destined to irrelevancy because it can’t match the speed?

I don’t think so. I think the answer is snopes. Crisis communicators and emergency management PIOs (Public Information Officers) have always struggled with the inherent conflicts between speed and accuracy. The conventional wisdom has always been accuracy above all. It make sense because credibility is everything–lose that and the game is up. But the public and media operate on immediacy–speed trumps all (I date this to the 2000 elections and it has only gotten worse since then). Snopes focuses on accuracy. It is THE authoritative source on urban legends. While the inaccuracy of information on the internet is generally known and accepted, sites and services like snopes exist to create some sense of security that the truth can be known. Mainstream media are struggling with this as well and while tilting toward speed, some are thankfully very concerned about maintaining their credibility.

While I think that speed is still terribly important for the JIC, accuracy should trump all. I believe that only completely verified information should be approved and released BUT in the meantime, PIOs should be communicating what is known at that time. Rumor management becomes one of the most important–and may eventually become the primary–tasks of the JIC. Because when a major incident is happening it is completely certain now that a lot of people (citizen journalists if you will) will be providing immediate information. Some of it true, some of it false. The media and the public need someplace to go to verify the facts. They need, in effect, a snopes for the response. Someplace to separate rumor from truth. Those inside the response should have access to the most relevant facts about the event and the response. That is the job of the Situation Unit.

But the process of identifying rumors, checking facts, verifying the information to be released and then getting timely approval for the release of it is critically important. Evenif the JIC is not first with the information, if there is too much a time delay between the initial faulty or unverified reports and verified information, the JIC will still quickly become irrelevant.

Speed and accuracy–still the drivers. But the dynamics of social media are definitely changing the rules of the game and how it is played.