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?

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