Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Live Video--The Future of Crisis Communication Is Now

The importance of live video feeds to the Gulf Spill response cannot be missed. It was the subject of news media coverage for days, approx 1.5 million individuals have watched the spill live video feeds on the Internet since they were first provided, and the cost in bandwidth to BP is astronomical. But the real lesson for anyone contemplating the future of emergency and crisis communications is that live video will be a key component of almost every major response going forward.

If you are a PIO or communication leader for an organization involved you may think you have a choice in the matter. No you don't. If the incident is subject to live video it will be provided--either by you or by someone else.

At this point BP is providing as many as 12 live video feeds and more may be added in the future. For the more technical in the crowd, the data is now being measured in petabytes (we're way past terrabytes). The cost of such enormous data feeds must be considered in the planning budgets of emergency response organizations in the future. In the case of an Responsible Party event, in other words oil and shipping industry events, the RP will pay and it will be required of them to provide it.

The role of live video feeds in major events should not surprise us. It is the natural convergence of technological capability wedded to our instant information/entertainment/transparency-driven culture. All news media (including new media) compete on the basis of immediacy. If it isn't happening right now, it really doesn't matter. That's why "Breaking News" is such a big deal on broadcast and why all the major newspapers have instant news alerts and websites that feature "breaking news." It's all about right now. What happened half an hour ago is, well, old news.

In the meantime, video production gets more and more democratized. The last few years have seen a giant revolution in the entertainment as well as news business because of the ready availability of high definition professional level gear at consumer prices. Now we've taken another giant leap in this democratization. Imagine producing a tv quality or even movie quality film--on your phone! I mean shooting, recording, mixing, editing--and distributing. Don't believe me--check this out. A film created entirely on the new iphone 4.

The future isn't coming at us, folks, it's right here. Alvin Toffler, where are you when we need you most?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Is this the best Social Media guide?

PIOs and crisis communicators have been watching the Gulf Spill with great interest. As some of our friends in the Coast Guard and working in the Unified Command JIC have said, this event may be the first "social media" response. Certainly, social media is being aggressively and effectively used.

One of the leading Coast Guard public affairs managers involved in the spill recently collaborated with me on a spill communications briefing and told the attendees how social media was not only used to help communicate important information, but how monitoring it helped form communication responses and strategies and how it is also being used by the response management to help understand emerging public issues and concerns.

Still, many leading communication managers and PIOs that I talk to are still trying to get their arms around what social media really is, how to implement it in their organizations, how to create policies that both allow use by employees and provide some protection against the many risks.

If you are struggling to understand how to really adopt social media in your organization, here is a great guide put out by Eloqua. Admittedly, this is marketing oriented, but the distance between marketing and public affairs and crisis management is narrowing all the time--social media being one of those reasons for it narrowing. So I think you will find it incredibly useful in understanding what will work and not work in your organization, as well as getting a handle on some of the emerging channels such as Foursquare and Gowalla.

(P.S. -- thanks William for another great find)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why Journalistic ignorance of NIMS/ICS is hurting the nation

Here's one of the most egregious examples of journalistic ignorance of the National Incident Management System, the Incident Command System, the Joint Information Center and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990: The Washington Post says the spill has created an uneasy marriage between BP and the government.

For twenty years government agencies at the federal, state and local levels have practiced this marriage with every major oil company and oil shipping company. They've been at the altar for 20 years, well, actually way past the altar. Why? Because they like each other so much? No, because the law required it. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 following ExxonValdez required the government and private company identified as the "Responsible Party" to collaborate in stopping the spill and cleaning it up. The RP pays, the government under authority of the lead federal agency, approves all plans, all actions, and all information. That's the way it has been--until 2010. That's when the biggest event of all called for everything invested in this system to pay off.

But we have been bitterly disappointed. Not by BP, not by the Coast Guard or the other agencies involved. But by the highest office in the land which has chosen for its own political future to put aside the 20 years of productive, cooperative and highly effective investment in a collaborative means of responding to big events. This action, as I have stated here before, is putting the future of NIMS and the JIC very much at risk--I believe putting at risk the ability of our nation to respond effectively to events in the future including major terrorist events. To what end? To avoid this administration being painted with the Katrina brush. It is a high price to pay in my mind. One we may all have to pay for in the long term.

But the political messaging that has overwhelmed the Joint Information Center releases is only made possible because of ignorance of NIMS/ICS and the JIC. This headline from the Washington Post demonstrates it, as does the seriously light weight cover story in the New York Times today.

If the reporter writing for the Washington Post was more informed about Unified Command, he would not be surprised about the forced marriage of BP and the federal government. He would be far more surprised, shocked even, that in this event a relationship that has been worked out through years of smaller events and large drills would be so badly damaged--to the detriment of the response and the victims--by a heavy handed political overlay.

It's long a truism in management that effective teamwork requires mutual trust, respect and open communication. That existed in the early days of the response. The marriage was there, tested and tried by time and effort. But that marriage was destroyed by dictate. The response is not better for it, the gulf is not better for it, BP is certainly not better for it, and I would suggest that the administration is not more respected for it.

The Washington Post, had it been more informed, would not have written about an uneasy marriage. But how a perfectly good marriage, so desperately needed in this response has had divorce forced upon it. The question ahead, and I would hope some better informed reporter would focus on it, is what does this forced divorce mean for the future of collaborative response? That may be one of the most distressing legacies of this very sad chapter in our history.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Guest Post - A Call for Technology Solutions

I'm happy to once again offer this spot to my friend Bill Boyd, in this along with him is David Sonnen. Bill is Fire Chief of my town of Bellingham, WA and has contributed several thought provoking blog posts here. This one is longer than most but the call they issue for technology solutions to getting relevant information to responders when they need it is definitely worth considering.

Open architecture for emergency response. A long overdue concept.

Summary: Emergency responders should be able to intuitively and quickly access useful open web-based information to help provide real time situational awareness, information and direction in mitigating wide-ranging emergency incidents. Emergency responders should be able to manage internal collaboration and public discourse from the same system using inclusive and non-proprietary technology solutions.

Imagine, a fire is reported in a dumpster behind an industrial facility in the outskirts of a small city in the middle of the night. A fire engine is dispatched from the local fire department. As they respond, the company officer pulls up a pre-incident plan of the facility on the engine’s mobile data computer (MDC). The plan notes the facility makes "airplane parts", and stores a small amount of hazardous materials on site. No other information is available. The crew arrives to find a police officer casually directing them to the rear of the facility, where they pull up to find a typical sized dumpster with bright red/white flame and white smoke showing from the top. The engine company officer pauses for a moment, thinking the smoke looks a little unusual. He briefly considers contacting the dispatch center to contact the owner of the facility, as he has no way to know what might be in the dumpster. But, seeing that the fire seems to be contained, he orders a hose line stretched to extinguish the fire. Per SOP, both the firefighter and officer are wearing full protective gear, including breathing apparatus. The driver/pump operator charges the hose with water and the firefighter opens the nozzle. Suddenly, a violent explosion picks up both firefighters and throws them 20 feet, showering them with white hot metal fragments. The dumpster peels back like a cheap tin can. Next day, the local paper headlines, "Firefighters Surprised and Injured by Dumpster".

Now, imagine the same scenario, only this time when the engine company arrives the officer, noting the unusual flame and smoke characteristics, turns to his MDC and types; "White hot flame and billowing white smoke, dumpster, airplane parts." The computer screen immediately shows quick links to information that indicates this is not your typical dumpster fire - the contents burning are likely the byproduct of the manufacturing of aluminum airplane parts, and applying water to this type of fire would likely have catastrophic results. The company officer wisely decides to isolate the area, deny entry, call for a hazardous materials team and moves his fire engine away from the dumpster. Soon thereafter, the dumpster melts away, spilling the burning contents onto the concrete where they are quickly consumed. After an hour, all units clear the scene and return to quarters. On the way back, the Captain types a quick note on the unusual situation on his MDC – which automatically updates the department's Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz accounts. The local paper doesn't even notice. But a City Council member tweets back, "Nice job".

You may be thinking; what’s the big deal? This information is all over the Internet and easy to find." Yes, there is a wealth of information about hazardous materials, chemical composition, firefighting tactics, after-action reports/lessons learned, etc... But, finding and using this good stuff is another story. Emergency responders should be able to intuitively and quickly access useful web-based information to help provide real time situational awareness, information and direction in mitigating wide ranging emergency incidents. Responders should be able to hold up their end of their conversation with their community -- simply and credibly == in ways that are relevant to their community.

Firefighters encounter unpredictable and deadly situations, requiring rapid size-up, interpretation and action. This environment has many similarities to a battlefield, where field commanders routinely make split second decisions with very limited information. Newly minted officers rely heavily on their training to guide their actions. As they gain experience they compare the situation they are confronted with to their previous similar experiences and base their actions accordingly. In other words, if it worked before it will probably work again. This approach works well most of the time. But, it can also result in complacency or inappropriate actions resulting from an empty slide tray. In these situations an officer needs all the external information they can get, as quickly as they can get it, to rapidly formulate an action plan based on what they see.

The fire service culture honors tradition, honor and sacrifice. While noble traits, they can inhibit innovation and compromise safety. With that said, newly minted emergency responders are well versed in computer skills and likely have tons of experience in using social media tools. Responders in this day and age are used to using Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Blogspot, etc.. to communicate and assimilate information. A challenge for technology innovators is to ensure tradition does not overtake innovation for the new breed of emergency responders, and build upon this culture shift.
It is time to evaluate the why and how of emergency responder thought processes in emergency situations, and how web based information technologies – present and future- can support and enhance these thought processes, with the goal of helping lifesavers do their jobs safer and more efficiently. Current web search engines are extremely powerful, accessing millions of data points, depending on the type of query. This type of searching is suitable if you are writing a research paper, looking for an old friend or are curious about how to home brew beer. But, an MDC would serve better as a wheel chock than an effective emergency decision making tool given how information is commonly retrieved currently.

Emergency services depend on technology. But, sometimes our technologies could work a lot better for us than they do. New technology is likely to need years of patching, changing and reissuing (at our expense) before it is really useful. Now we have a thundering herd of new stuff stampeding down the tech road.

We think it would be a good idea to try to get ahead of the thundering herd by giving the technologists a better idea of what we actually need. So, we started writing down the things we know and the things that we would like technologists to think about as they build out new emergency response systems. The lists below are our first cut.

We think that all of us are smarter than a couple of us. We'd like this article to be a starting point for serious discussions about what future technologies should do for our emergency response community and the communities we serve. We think that our professional organizations should focus and consolidate our collective tech requirements.

With that said, here's a list of discussion points.

New things we know for sure

The technology sector has yet to create a widely adopted standard platform for deep web search and filtering user interface tools for the emergency response community. Most emergency response agencies have not embraced use of social media tools, search, or even use basic information tools as currently configured.
Most public sector emergency response agencies cannot afford expensive proprietary information systems.
Information extracted from the Web could be valuable in pre-planning, training, and real-time emergency operations.
Emergency response agencies are concerned about the security of social media sites and the impact on the transparency of government.
Most people use computers and use the Internet. Many use social media to communicate and gather information
Robust, real-time sophisticated data streaming and filtering systems are already being used by specific sectors (Financial institutions and nuclear safety for example).
Open software and open data are easier to adopt and less expensive than proprietary systems.

Questions for discussion

Can most-if not all- emergency response information requirements be met with a single, integrated approach?
Does it make sense to link social media tools that push out information and search tools that retrieve critical information for responder use?
What are some of the categories of information available on the web that may be useful in an ongoing emergent situation?
What search, data access, and filtering barriers do response agencies encounter that hinder their response preparedness capabilities?
What are the requirements emergency responders have to easily access emergent information?
What are the device constraints, if any, to accessing and using dynamic Web-based information in field operations?
What tools currently exist that can be used or reconfigured to assist in searching, accessing, analyzing and publishing dynamic information for field operations?
Can data and/or interface standards contribute to the value of emergency response data?
What are the social and cultural barriers to using effective information in the emergency response community?
What organizational capabilities are in place to promote the effective use of new information technologies? E.g.: ICS, national or regional training/ certification, professional organizations, informal channels.

Design Considerations/ Requirements

The system has to be easier to use than not to use.
Any user experience must be self-re-enforcing. That means that the user will get something of real, tangible value from any use of the system.
User interfaces must be independent of the underlying business logic. This means that any interface can be tailored to an individual's specific, local needs.
While source data may be unstructured and unformatted, the user must see predictable, consistent information in forms that are familiar to each user.
The system must operate in connected, occasionally connected and unconnected environments.
System must screen and secure sensitive data like personal health and national security information.
The system must be freely available to qualified users, and scalable from 1 user to hundreds working in a real or virtual crisis Joint Information Center (JIC).
Much, if not most, information will be in the deep Web behind various forms, firewalls and other barriers. When duly authorized, the system must be able to search and access deep Web sources.
Collaboration will be an important element in the system. Any collaboration tools must be freely available, simple and scalable. Collaboration tools must be compatible with major social media sites.
The platform(s) must be designed in anticipation that various social media platforms will transition in and out of favor. Therefore, the interfaces must be as flexible and universal in capturing current and future social integration media.
The system must capture local citizen comments, opinions and ideas about each local agency. Citizens must be able to become involved, ask questions and participate in discussions about the local, regional agencies or specific incidents. The local agency must be able to easily track trends, manage citizen and media requests and monitor real time dialog from multiple platforms.

Right, now, a huge emergency response effort is underway in the gulf coast to stop a gushing deep underwater oil well and organize an unprecedented and long term cleanup effort. Researchers, scientists, industry, government, safety officials and public relations experts are hard at work trying to stop the spill and limit the resulting environmental and political damage. This response and cleanup "machine" is not only searching out all possible data, research and ideas, it is also monitoring the impact of its efforts on the people, environment, government and the oil industry. The Web 2.0 "Cloud" is undoubtedly being used in intense and unique ways, and while some impacts of this innovation are likely already being identified, others may be not realized and widely known for some time. It is likely discipline specific ad hoc search databases, search tools and filters have been created by command staff and technical specialists to assist them in quickly researching relevant information. Likewise, these tools are providing real time intelligence about public perception, rumors and "ground truth" observations. This type of integration is exactly what is needed on broader basis within the emergency response community. It should not have to take an unprecedented environmental disaster to make it happen, but we can use this opportunity.

The next steps are up to you. As a community and profession, we can work to have better technologies or we can let technologists guess what we need. We challenge those in the technology sector to work with the emergency response community to further refine the questions and concepts listed above to improve public safety. To quote writer William Gibson, "The future is here. It is just not evenly distributed."

David Sonnen is a geospatial technology consultant and writer. His past work includes serving in emergency services and working for a Type 1 Incident Management Team. He has a degree in Forestry. His publications through International Data Corporation (IDC) have been surprisingly accurate in predicting future tech trends.

Bill Boyd is the Fire Chief for the Bellingham, Washington Fire Department. He serves as a incident commander for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team- a regional Type III all-hazards team. He is a graduate of Western Washington University and the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program.

Monday, June 7, 2010

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.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gulf Spill Communications--analyzing phases

The Gulf Spill will provide lessons learned about crisis communication for many years to come. If journalism is the first draft of history, what does that make blogs such as this one? The scratchpad for the first draft?

Here are a few observations about the phases of communication that can be seen in this response. I have an inside/outside perspective because the company I work for is involved in the operational response and the system I created, PIER, is the communication platform used for the response. Plus, we have a significant number of PIER employees and contractors involved in supporting and helping manage the communications. But, I am outside because I am not directly involved in the response and have maintained some distance, in part to keep some perspective for a strategic role.

Phase I--The Initial Response.
First communication was through Coast Guard District 8 in New Orleans. It was a large but routine search and rescue operation communicated through their public affairs website (also a PIER site.)
BP launched their crisis dark site shortly after the event (also a PIER site). Once Unified Command was formed, a Joint Information Center was established and a PIER site was set up following the template designed by the Coast Guard for such responses. The JIC began the process of information flow--through PIER, through media engagement and through a social media function established as soon as the social media experts from the Coast Guard arrived at the JIC location in Robert, Louisiana. So far, so good.

Phase II -- Politics and the Message
The initial information focused on what should be in a response like this--what is happening with the event itself, and what is the response organization doing about it. Part of that communication is that Unified Command is established and the information proceeds from Unified Command. This changed the first time Secretary Napolitano arrived at the Command Center. The JIC site was stripped of all logos and the incident name was changed from Deepwater Horizon to BP Oil Spill. Information release protocols were changed to enable the White House to review and approve all information prior to release from the event. From an information standpoint, Unified Command approval now flowed from the Incident Commanders, through the National Incident Commander to the White House. The overriding message was not Unified Command and what the coordinated effort was, but that this was BP's spill, it was BP's fault, it was their responsibility and the role of the government was to hold them fully accountable--the boot on the neck message. This deeply troubled me for what it meant for the future of the National Incident Management System and the concept of effective work being done in a collaborative way--ultimately dependent on good and competent people working together in cooperation and some level of trust and harmony. This phase lasted from about May 3 until Friday May 28.

Phase III Federal Response, with BP
The pressure mounted on the administration and despite the strenuous efforts to make certain the blame game was focused fully on BP, it was clear that this was not working in avoiding administration criticism. Questions increased from the media as to why the administration was allowing BP to run the response when they were clearly bungling it. The fact was, of course, that the government was ultimately running the response through Unified Command and that everything done was with the government's input and approval--including use of dispersants, the EPA letter notwithstanding. But pressure rose until on May 28 in a press conference the president stated that the federal government had been in charge all along. Some in the administration suggested that BP would be pushed aside if they did not stop the flow, but this suggestion was modified by the National Incident Commander by correctly saying that BP would continue to be involved because of the expertise and technology that the government alone would not have access to if they were pushed aside. So the message changed quite dramatically from "this is all on BP" to "we are running things and BP is doing what we tell them to."

Phase IV Federalizing, going it alone
We have just entered a new phase. With the move to focus communications about the response and the administration's involvement on a single person (National Incident Commander Allen), BP is no longer significantly in the picture from a communications standpoint. The Commander stands alone, without BP in a Unified Command posture. More significantly, with a criminal probe launched, BP will be severely restricted in what they can and will be willing to say--with a reasonable explanation being that such information would be part of criminal investigation. While technically the response may still be in Unified Command, the Responsible Party has been effectively limited from having a voice.

The political messaging of necessity has to change in this posture and that can be seen already in releases coming from Unified Command, such as the one I am looking at right now that says "Administration Underscores Scientific Response to BP Oil Spill." It is no longer--if you are unhappy with this, blame BP, it is: we are doing and have been doing great work in responding to a very difficult situation."

Phase V --the Future

The media's demand for placing blame and demonizing will certainly continue and the administration will be more aggressive than ever in communicating the on-going effort and the incredible work that has been done by all involved. With the news that efforts to stop the well have been halted to focus on containing the spill until the relief well is dug in August, the attention will shift from staring at the gushing well to more pictures of oiled beaches, marshes, wildlife and even more on the devastation of those families and communities affected. It is my hope that BP continues to communicate, likely now outside of the JIC, about its continuing full-bore effort to contain the spill and all it is doing in the affected communities to listen, respond and try to make the environment and people whole.

There certainly is one overriding lesson for me in this event so far (and thousands of daily small lessons). The overriding lesson is the role of political involvement and messaging. It should not be a surprise, anywhere near to the degree it is. Ten years ago in the Olympic Pipeline event, which really started my involvement in all this stuff, I noticed the convenient marriage between media intent on finding someone to blame and feed public outrage and politicians eager to make themselves heroes. I wrote about that quite a bit in Now Is Too Late. But that was before Katrina, when the blame-game played in concert by all major media (and now gazillions of angry blogs and social media sites) focused on the administration's response--or lack of it. A focus that has never been seen to be seriously in error because at that time FEMA's job was not managing or leading a response, but supporting (primarily financially) those state and local organizations who would do the responding. Now that has changed. Public expectation about the role of the federal government has changed, and fear of long term political damage related to a huge event like this is driving much of the information flow and strategy. I was probably naive to be surprised at how much these factors controlled the communications in a big response. But, if I am surprised again, and if you are, it is our fault, and no one else.