Friday, July 30, 2010

More sign of the demise of the JIC--the Enbridge Spill

It is now very clear that the NIMS/ICS/Joint Information Center concept implemented by the government and the oil industry since 1990 is not being used in the Deepwater Horizon response. Particularly from a public information standpoint, the primary value of using that system, mandated by federal law and regulations, was to enable there to be a single voice for the response and that single voice represented in largely equal measure the perspectives of the Responsible Party as well as the lead federal, state and local government agencies.

There is a major oil spill going on in Michigan, involving pipeline operator Enbridge. The press release from the EPA and their response website demonstrate very very clearly that the JIC is dead, even though the response may be handled using other NIMS/ICS protocols.

Why do I say the JIC is dead and how does this vary from the way responses were handled pre-gulf spill? You would never have seen an agency like the EPA loudly proclaiming in a press release that it is in charge--leading some to believe that the response had actually been federalized. EPA wants to leave no doubt that the federal government is running this response--quietly mentioning that oh, yeah, the RP is here too. That is very very different from way this has been drilled and done before. Before, the message was (typically led by RP) that here we stand, company, fed, state, local--we are all in this together. Unified Command and all that.

Secondly, the website. The EPA is running its own website, as is Enbridge. Single voice? Not a chance. In fact, it is likely that we will see info on EPA's response website that throws Enbridge under the bus. Why do I expect that? Deepwater might have something to do with that. What has always happened before is there was a single website with the rules being that the JIC and only the JIC is the authoritative voice. This is what makes the JIC and essential element of NIMS because NIMS/ICS demands that Command be responsible for and have authority over all elements of the response--including communications. When you have each agency involved on its own, its own messaging, its own strategy, its own information flow, there can be no Unified Command authority or control over the information. Another DWH legacy.

But one of the most telling items is the name. Under NIMS/ICS, an incident is supposed to have a single name and it usually the location or something specific to incident. It may seem a minor point but getting one name and sticking to it does several things--avoids confusion and avoids placing blame in the naming process--particularly important because in so many of these events who really is responsible isn't known until the investigation and legal process is complete. Unified Command named the Deepwater Horizon event the Deepwater Horizon event. However, a higher power renamed it: the BP Spill. Now look at this event in Michigan. The EPA calls it the Enbridge Oil Spill. Enbridge calls it "the leak on line 6B."

Yes, the gulf spill (I call it that because, well, since it doesn't seem to have a consistent name anymore I guess anyone can call it what they want), yes the gulf spill has changed our world.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Media Coverage of Spill Moving Into New Phase

It's been fascinating and often disheartening to watch media coverage throughout the Gulf Spill (again full disclosure for those who may be new to Crisis Comm blog--both US Coast Guard and BP are long time clients). The harshness, negativity, blackhat stories and conspiracy theories have been rampant, along with some outstanding and very enlightening coverage of what is going on. But there have been definite phases of coverage that reveal how long duration events such like this play out in the news media and how the news media itself works.

Today the story is changing dramatically. Where in the past, particularly in early to mid-June when coverage was at its peak, most major blogs and news outlets were competing on how bad they could make it and how evil those behind the spill or failures in the response were. That story line is suddenly shifting. A few relevant examples:

Spill Vanishing. It seems things started turning with this story from NYT, one of the mainstream who did the most to exaggerate the damage (remember the inaccurate report of the huge underwater plume?)

BP Spill Damage Exaggerated. Time Magazine even goes so far as to suggest Rush Limbaugh might have been right.

Yes, but who is to blame for the exaggeration, and who gains from it?
The Telegraphic in UK takes this one on. Conspiracy theories are never far behind, even when the story changes from "it's horrible" to "someone screwed up by saying it was horrible."

BP looking better. The Wall Street Journal noticed that things were looking better for BP in all of this and made an article of it.

Maybe it's not their fault. Amid all this is mounting speculation that the blame for this may fall on others.

Maybe it won't matter as much as we thought. Then there is this one from AP suggesting that previous spills may have greater impact on society and legislation.

Don't get me wrong. BP's reputation will be impacted by this for my lifetime anyway, and chances are most of those who may be reading this. The important thing for emergency managers interested in how these things play out in the media and public opinion is to understand what is going on here and why.

A few comments that may help better understand this change as well as coverage thr0ughout this event.

1) Every day the war starts anew. By the war I mean the battle that every publisher and editor faces--how do I get eyes on my screen or paper today? More than that, how do I steal eyes from my millions of competitors? So every day something new has to be created. The story in the Gulf isn't changing much. Bummer for the media. So something has to be new, something has to change and that means that new angles, stories and trends have to be created if not simply uncovered.

2) Good guys don't win wars. By that I mean, good news stories have a hard time in the tough competition for eyes, ears and minds. That's why the blame game exists. Put a black hat on someone and eyes will turn. Hey--I found the guy to blame for all this--and suddenly people will pay attention. Time even put a list of the top twelve candidates to blame. So, now there is good news about the spill--it is vanishing and the damage may not be as great as we thought. So who should be blame for their being good news? It's like they can't help themselves.

3) If you don't like the weather now, hang around for a minute. Sort of like the weather in Denver, media coverage is always changing. (See point one). That means you have to have some patience. It's been understood about celebrity coverage for some time that the media loves to build someone up into some kind of godlike being, and then loves even more to tear them down to human size, or lower. The same is true of events, companies, government agencies, etc. Why? See point two.

4) The herd mentality. In most major stories, there emerges what might be called a meta-narrative. In Katrina it was simple--the feds let us down, particularly President Bush. That story was repeated ad nauseum despite the basic underlying truth that until Katrina, FEMA was never seen or understood as a response organization. The meta-narrative of this spill has been BP is a big evil foreign company that caused the spill and is failing to fix it. Well, half the shareholders are American. Investigation will show the causes. Failure to fix it was true due to the incredible technical challenges. Failure or slowness in paying claims has been essentially untrue and completely exaggerated. But that was the story line and probably 90% of America believes it because it was repeated so often. Now, we may see the story line changing and the herd is following. It seems contradictory that media need a new story and angle every day and then to see such "me too" coverage. But no one seems to want to try and challenge the meta-narrative. So the new angles tend to be minor issues supporting that big overwhelming story, with few if any, challenging the underlying truth of the big story.

I can't wait to see the news tomorrow. "Claims the spill was exaggerated are exaggerated--and we know who to blame!"

Monday, July 26, 2010

Government and the Internet--the plot thickens

Today the news is that a website, Wikileaks, has published 90,000 classified documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. This website is dedicated to publishing classified and "leaked" documents. The administration is claiming that this act of making public information that was never intended for public viewing could put American lives and security at stake.

On July 19, the New York Times published an important article by Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, titled "The Web Means the End of Forgetting." The primary point is that what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet with much potential harm to those who don't think about what they put there. He makes the intriguing point that while we now live in a global village, sharing almost everything with the 6 billion or more other people on this planet, we have not adopted the village's values of "forgive and forget." The consequences to lives now and in the future will be great.

Last Thursday, July 22, the GAO published a document of testimony titled: "Information Management: Challenges in Federal Agencies' Use of Web 2.0 Technologies." It reviewed the issues arising from government agencies using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and such uses impact issues such as the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Freedom of Information Act.

On that same day, an article appeared in Federal Computer Week highlighting the Department of Defense's new social media hub where the hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook pages for the various military departments can get info about social media use by these departments.

Clearly, there is great ferment here. What we are seeing is a convergence of a very important social value of exceptional openness and transparency combining with the technological means of providing that openness. The British found that transparency included the failure to keep Prince Harry's presence in Afghanistan a secret. The US is finding that keeping military secrets is increasingly challenging. Individuals are finding that off-handed or poorly thought out comments or postings may impact their lives and careers forever.

For government and private PIOs and communication leaders, there are no simple answers to this. The public seems to demand complete, unrestricted transparency, and they and the media will cry "cover-up" and "guilty as charged" as soon as they see the slightest hint of reservation about release of information. But there are obviously dangers and concerns with the release, and what do these new channels and forums mean relating to making certain that records are available in compliance with the law?

The law, technology, social values and agency policy all have to come together in a way that is defensible. We are moving in that direction it seems, but it is a bit like watching sausage being made. It's not very pretty. Until we come to some social and policy consensus, there will be much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. Jeffrey Rosen's reminder of the role of forgiveness in an earlier and simpler time of village life is important to remember.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Public Engagement--another lesson from the Gulf Spill

Having done a number of presentations so far on the communications for the Gulf Spill it is clear one of the most surprising and important lessons learned has to do with the way the Unified Command has engaged directly with the public. One of the most profound ways the Internet has changed public information and crisis management is by creating the possibility of and the demand for one-to-one engagement. While the majority of public relations professionals including PIO-types still live in the old media-centric world, more and more are realizing that communications, and particularly crisis communication, is about interactivity, about direct conversation, about engagement with individuals and groups with where they want to be.

The communication leaders of the Gulf Spill response early on clearly understood the value of direct engagement. As one of the communication leaders said during one of the recent presentations, not only does the engagement aid in building understanding of what is actually going on, but also provides real-time view into trending topics, emerging issues, rumors, misinformation and public priorities. These help guide not only the communications, but even some of the response decisions themselves.

The Gulf Spill, like almost every other aspect of this event, has experienced unprecedented direct engagement. The website (full disclosure--a PIER site provided by my company)for Unified Command has received over 53,000 inquiries through the inquiry form and almost all of those have been directly and individually responded to. Forms built into the system have collected claims requests, suggestions, responses to public meetings, and other information important to Unified Command. The fact that the entire system is web-based means that the communicators working on these responses don't need to be in the command center or Joint Information Center but indeed are located all around the country and beyond.

The key to effective crisis response is preparation, and preparation is aided considerably by taking a closer look at the kind of questions and comments people submit via the incident website. In the case of the Gulf Spill, inquiries are sorted into 35 different categories. Many of these are related to specific technical topics such as toxicity of oil or dispersants, progress with containment activities, impact of hurricanes on the response activities, etc. Others are specific to the media including media interview requests or opportunities for embeds. The largest numbers of inquiries are from people who wish to help. These include asking about volunteering, about providing a Vessel of Opportunity, about suggestions or ideas for containing the flow, or for selling products or services. In the case of this event, BP and Unified Command set up a process for evaluating all ideas and suggestions, running them by a highly competent technical review committee to make certain that no valid ideas were ignored. Suggestions have come in to the response command via multiple means--in addition to the thousands through the PIER inquiry form, a special PIER form was set up for this purpose and thousands of calls were received by the call center.

The second largest category of inquiries were negative ones. Again, these have been registered in unprecedented numbers and many of them would not be appropriate to share in most polite company. This is no doubt due to several factors including the nature of the event itself, the longevity of it, and the highly critical media coverage.

The website itself was only one vehicle for managing this public engagement. The spill communicators set up a number of social media channels for both helping communicate the continual flow of information, to monitor the discussion, and to engage with "friends" and "followers" directly. Additional tens of thousands of comments were posted on the response's Facebook page and Twitter page, as well as the Flickr and YouTube accounts used by the Unified Command.

It is increasingly clear that this event will impact crisis communication for a long time to come. The mistakes that have been made, the unremittingly negative press coverage, the political involvement, the demand for live video, the outcries over real and feared access limitations--all these have great importance for crisis communicators and PIOs. But the model that has been set for direct public engagement may be one of the quietest, least obvious and most important lessons of all. Are you prepared to directly engage those who expect it of you? And how will you do it?