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.