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.

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