Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How Can Communication Be Good When the Public Opinion is Bad?--the Gulf Spill

One of the questions I face frequently in discussing the Gulf Oil Spill and the massive communication effort (full disclosure--we are deeply involved) is how can communication be good when public opinion is so bad? It's a tough and fair question. Particularly when I have spent the past ten years trying to convince people that the key to trust was doing two things: respond well and communicate well.

The truth is, in my opinion and that of many others who know better than I do what they are talking about, is that Unified Command is responding well, and they are communicating exceptionally well (with some qualifications). Judge for yourself: go to www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com, the Unified Command website and register to receive updates. You will get several a day. I have discovered in a very unscientific polling that the people who go to the site (about 2 million people have) and receive updates (about 20,000 have registered to receive them) have a vastly different opinion of the response and what is going on than those who get their information only from the media. And that's why communication can be good and public opinion bad.

Why is public opinion, particularly against BP so horrendous. Four reasons:
1) It is a terrible, devastating event--that never seems to end.
2) Big and powerful organizations and oil companies in particularly are deeply mistrusted and reviled--even before they cause this kind of devastation.
3) The media lives (or dies) on stories that rip eyes from other attractions and affix them tightly onto their screens (tv or computers)--and this means that new stories have to be created every day that feed the outrage and fix blame.
4) The administration, through a paranoia about being charged with a Katrina-like response, is feeding the media's need for an entity to demonize.

One, it's a horrible event. This is the mother of all crises as far as the oil industry is concerned. There is the terrible loss of life (let's not forget the families and friends grieving), a massive environmental catastrophe, economic disruption and devastation across multiple states--and add to this the helplessness we all feel as we watch the oil continue to gush day and night. It's about as terrible as we could imagine--in fact, one of the problems is that we apparently couldn't imagine it at this level, and that feeds our horror.

Two, the distrust of big oil runs deep. Trust in almost anything big and powerful is near all-time lows, and the oil industry is the second worst for trust of any industry (what's worse? the media--check the Edelman Trust Barometer). So if there was nothing but good news from the industry, as there has been about the significant reduction in the last few years in spills of all kinds, it wouldn't matter much because it wouldn't be believed. But when something like this happens, it not only is believed, but it confirms the worst suspicions and prejudices. Yes, the public reacts, they are just incompetent, greedy, lying fools.

Three, the media's desperation for audiences requires attention grabbing headlines. Let's be honest--is anyone going to pay attention to a story that says: hey, under the circumstances these guys are doing a pretty good job. Are they going to want to hear: despite triple redundancy and incredible preparation by people who are really serious about doing the right thing, things have just gone wrong because, you know, accidents happen. No, that won't get people to stop channel surfing or site surfing. It certainly won't cause a story to go viral. But find a chap in Victoria, BC who says he has the answer to BP's problems in capping the well but BP won't pay attention, and it gets front page coverage. Truth is BP has received nearly 10,000 suggestions just by the website and all of them are subjected to a review by a panel of experts to see if there are any ideas of merit. The media is in a tough spot, they live or die by the eyes on the screen, and if innocent people are made to look like idiots, fools or diabolical incompetents, too bad. Am I being cynical--yes, but also realistic. Let me give you one quick example. I saw a headline in USA Today that said that the hurricane season approaching could make the spill much worse. Big bold headline. The much smaller sub-head said: But it could lessen environmental damage. The story went on to present the case for both sides of the argument. I don't blame them one bit for selecting the headline that would feed people's fears and outrage. But I blame the public for buying this and being as naive as we all to take what the media says about this event at face value. Go to the incident site and make your own decisions.

Four, the administration's highly effective effort to control the message. This is a Unified Command event, the first Spill of National Significance since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (following ExxonValdez) set the pattern for how spills will be managed. All agencies come together to work in Unified Command. The Responsible Party (not the one liable, nor the one who caused the problem, but the owner of the oil is designated the RP) is a voting member of Unified Command and operates the response under the full and complete authority of the response agencies--which include the US Coast Guard, Minerals Management Service, the EPA and about 50 plus other agencies. It is Unified Command working in concert with BP who have been making all final decisions. What, you say, how can this be. How? It is the law, it is how it is supposed to work and how it actually is working. That means that Unified Command approves booming plans, skimming plans, in situ burning, the use of dispersants. But, BP is getting all the blame, yes. Why? Because that is what the political realities call for. I do not blame the administration. Looking back on Katrina and what happened to the Bush administration, this kind of response from the political leaders is fully expected and demanded. The media demands a scapegoat--the black hat has to reside somewhere. In Katrina it was solidly on FEMA (and therefore President Bush). Here, if it isn't on BP, then the likelihood it could and may fall on any and all agencies involved in the response. My frustration is that the media refuses to see this, to understand the law, to recognize that the billions of dollars to implement the National Incident Management System are threatened by the political realities.

The upshot is the situation we have. A group of people (and I know a number of them on both the federal agency side as well as BP) who are doing an incredible job, sacrificing their work, their family time, and in some cases their careers to step into this and do all they can. They are being bashed, trashed and abused. The situation is incredibly horrible and we are all heartsick at the fact that this occurred and also heartsick about what this will likely do to our nation for a long time to come. But, I just wish the public would have a deeper understanding of how this blame game is played, how the politics play out, how the media abuses us all for their purposes, and the high price we all have to pay for these realities. In the meantime, those working on the response should be strongly encouraged to continue doing their best. We need them and their very best work. My thoughts and prayers with all of them and communities and families so deeply hurt by this horrible circumstance.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Social Media Incident Commander's Perspective

Here is another guest post from my favorite Fire Chief, Chief Bill Boyd of the City of Bellingham Fire Department. Here he shares his direct experience of how social media plays out in a fire event--one that got him on TV news and the Wall Street Journal. I can tell you from my vantage point, if you are not following the lead of this "with it" fire chief, you are going to get left in the dust:

Recently, my pager awakened me from a deep sleep at 3 A.M., notifying me and my command staff of a large fire downtown. I quickly dressed while listening to the dispatcher’s radio transmissions describing three storefronts were on fire. “Here we go” I thought as I drove to the scene. From a couple of miles away I could see the large thermal column and glow in the sky. I listened to the first in size up, battalion chief strategy and tactical communications. All the while, I envisioned what was occurring and what to expect when I arrived. I knew what to expect, large fire, crews “taxed to the max” and large hose streams in use. On arrival I was confronted with two large vacant commercial buildings with heavy fire showing (pretty spectacular if I might say!). The strategy, as expected, was defensive.

I parked my vehicle and suited up. While doing so I was struck by the large group of onlookers all appearing to be using their cell phones to take pictures, shoot video, text and simply do it the old fashioned way-talk. . It was obvious that even as I readied myself for battle these novice reporters were already reporting on the battle and predicting the future. “It’s going to burn up half of downtown”, “They won’t be able to stop this”, “The building exploded man!” (A true statement; a smoke explosion blew out the windows and lifted the roof just after the first in engine arrived), “I’m sending you pictures as soon as I hang up”, are just some of the comments I heard in my first 30 seconds on scene.
Amateur reporters were sending real time information and opinion about our incident. I had just witnessed a micro view of social media reporting in all its glory.

There was no way we were going to get ahead of the “lookyloos” texting about this event. However, outside of the ongoing superficial accounts of the fire I knew we needed to quickly provide information the amateur reporters did not know; the buildings were vacant, firefighter safety was the number one priority, several fire districts responded to provide fire/EMS protection to the city and crews would likely be extinguishing hot spots throughout the day.

None of this inside information was available to the crowd. However, in my brief time overhearing what was being said, I began thinking about appropriate messaging to validate what people saw and also dispel l inaccurate speculation. Once we confirmed the fire was contained to the buildings of origin, an assistant chief issued a quick media release from the field via PIER, our web-based emergency media messaging tool .

Shortly thereafter, local news reporters arrived and we provided as much information as we could, realizing that given the time of day, they would not be reporting this news for at least a couple of hours.

At the same time, I used my Blackberry to log into my personal Twitter account where I found a direct message from a Seattle T.V. station asking for a phone call to talk about the fire. I immediately returned the call and within minutes was speaking live to the anchors of an early morning news program. This conversation was recorded and repeated an hour later. Ironically, during subsequent replays of my interview they showed my Twitter profile picture as a background! (I was really glad it was a good picture of me in a tie at a friend’s wedding).

Subsequent monitoring of newspaper blogs, Twitter feeds, and other media streams revealed a speculative and rampantly spreading rumor accusing the building owners of setting the fire to collect insurance money and make the property more attractive to potential buyers. A subsequent media release, based on witness interviews, facts and physical evidence addressed these rumors.

By 8 A.M. that morning, pictures of the fire and commentary were already posted on web sites across the country, and the Wall Street Journal had a color picture and caption in the news section the following day.

The lessons learned from this incident are not just related to fire ground strategy or tactics. Equally as important, we noted how fast information is spread in the virtual world and the need to monitor and push out accurate and frequent information as quickly as possible. A well respected emergency response and GIS professional recently commented on one of my blog postings; “Raw information seems to rise, like smoke, from any event. If you’re not providing solid information about a situation, digital smoke will fill any space that you don’t — and flash over.” Well stated.

For now, I’d be happy if we do not make the Wall Street Journal again.

Some observations from a newbie social media IC;
There is a direct correlation between the visibility of the emergency and the number of cell phones/ cameras in use.
Social media is not a “kid thing”. It is THE THING. Minimize the medium and you may be minimized.
My kids are horrified I have a Facebook account. Using it to provide emergency information does not make them feel any better.
Traditional media will never be as fast as a witness with a 3G cell phone camera and a good signal.
Think “140 or less” and call it “texting”, not “typing”.
It is hard to give context in 140 characters. Chose your words and phrases carefully. Get it right the first time.
Learn what “hash tag” and “retweet” means.
If you don’t have a social media presence before the “big one”, your likelihood of social media success in emergency social media communications is just about zero.
Nothing beats a QWERTY keypad on a cell phone.
It is tempting to hire teenagers with texting configured cell phones. No one does it faster or more frequently.
Be prepared for your message to go viral in a heartbeat. This means you need to be ready to keep the messages flowing and point readers somewhere to get detailed information.
It is OK to say “we have no further info right now.”
It is Ok to say “we will post more info as we get it.”
It is not OK to posting nothing for a long time (a long time in the social media world is minutes-not hours)
A viral message is just one “tweet” away.
If you don’t get it right, correct it as soon as you can! Don’t linger, or the error will.
Notice and correct rumors ASAP, especially if they are trending.
Use a Twitter monitoring site (I use TweetDeck) to filter tweets and identify trending messages.
Pictures often convey much more than words.
Posting pictures of victims or patients is not cool and may violate privacy laws. Be careful!
You can convey compassion and sound human in less than 140 characters. “We are concerned” packs a punch.
Your audience can be worldwide in less than 30 minutes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Deepwater and the Future of NIMS

Deepwater Horizon (aka the BP Spill) is probably the largest and most visible NIMS event since the system was established by DHS in 2004. Katrina was a NIMS event but NIMS was new then and a big takeaway was that NIMS was effectively implemented. Deepwater is different, in part because the oil companies and federal spill response agencies have been working together in a NIMS environment since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Then it was called ICS. Every year every oil company facility with risk exposure must run a significant drill with all participating response agencies, and every three years a Worst Case Scenario drill.

So this event has been the first large public and media exposure to what a NIMS event looks like. And as a result, I have some serious concerns about its future. Full disclosure: PIER, the crisis communication technology I created, is being used by the JIC and BP as the platform for managing incident communications. My company is very involved in the response, including assisting Unified Command with communications support. This is the main reason why I have been reluctant to comment on this event.

Why am I concerned about its future? Look at this comment from Secretary Napolitano from Bulldog Reporter: Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano, meanwhile, has taken pains to distance the administration from BP, saying, "I wouldn't characterize them as our partner. I would characterize them as the responsible party," adding that their role provides them with a clear mandate: "They've got to kill this well, clean up the ocean and pay the claims," according to the article.

The basic principle of NIMS is Unified Response. It is why it works. All parties with legitimate roles have a stake in the game, a say in the response through an exceptionally well-structure Unified Command process. They word together, not independently, not at cross-purposes and not getting in each other's way. It works exceptionally well and it is working very well in this case.

However that partnership model is not perceived by the Secretary, and we must presume by the White House, to be in the best interests of the White House. There is clearly great concern that the public will place blame on the administration for the event and for any perceived failures in response if the Coast Guard, MMS and other agencies are too closely linked to the response. Hence, from almost the beginning, the overt effort to make this a BP event. BP for its part has never wavered from its role as the Responsible Party, clearly communicating its responsibility. And the fact the fact that under NIMS, the RP pays the bills is a vitally important message to communicate in an event like this, and one that BP has never wavered from. While it is a matter of compliance that the oil companies cooperate to the degree they do in a Unified Command environment, I am concerned about what all non-federal partners (including other government agencies involved in a cooperative response) will do in future knowing that the basic message to the public about NIMS, which is a unified and cooperative effort, may be sacrificed to political necessities.

The impact on NIMS from this message of non-partnership is one concern. The other is the obvious lack of knowledge about NIMS in the public, in the media, in the elected officials, and possibly even in the White House. There have been numerous examples of this lack of knowledge:
- many cable news shows running viewer surveys asking: Who should pay for this, or should BP be doing more to respond.
- news headlines in Louisiana newspapers saying that Parish Presidents were taking over the lead in the response
- complaints about inaccurate spill volume were blamed on BP without recognizing that it is Unified Command responsible for approving such information
- the majority of news reports focus on BP's response--no doubt in part based on the political messaging referred to above, but clearly it is a Unified Command response

Does it matter that the public, the media and elected officials understand NIMS. Absolutely. The current lack of understanding, combined with the political messaging, in my mind threaten the future of NIMS. Resistance will grow, not only among private companies who now in most cases seem to eagerly participate, but also among other government agencies who could experience the same undermining political message. I believe in NIMS, think it is a great way to manage multi-party responses, and hope the lessons learned from this will result in its strengthening rather than weakening.