Wednesday, June 2

Making Choices: 10 Steps To Improve Oil Spill Communication

On any other day, I might pen a post much like Bob Conrad, communications officer for the Nevada Department of Conservation of Natural Resources. The oil spill is a consequence of attempting to maintain ever sprawling and increasingly complex human systems.

He's right, much like he was right to cite the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill crisis. It's comparative in that it was the worst our country had ever seen when 200,000 gallons of crude oil bubbled to the surface and was spread into an 800-square mile slick by winds and swells. As a comparative model, it demonstrates how far we have evolved from the roots of our industrial ignorance.

"I don't like to call it a disaster, because there has been no loss of human life," Fred Hartly, president of Union Oil Co., had said in 1969. "I don't like to call it a disaster, because there has been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds."

"It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people," reflected U.S. President Richard Nixon. "What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and of the land in a more effective way and with more concern for preserving the beauty and the natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people."

By comparison, the roles seem almost reversed, with BP demonstrating it understands the consequences of its actions and has accepted responsibility to clean up the spill. Whereas the current administration for lack of a plan, has turned toward vilification.

The oil isn't the only containment that needs to be stopped. The runaway communication is equally poisonous.

Ten Steps To Improve Oil Spill Communication.

Step 1. Centralize The Spokesperson. A few weeks ago, someone else might have been better suited to be the primary speaker on the Deep Horizon Response, but today it seems clear U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen has the compassion and captured the respect of the media. He understands that there is no time for politics. He is focused on the crisis.

Step 2. Reorganize The Unified Command Communication. With U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen in the lead, the responsibility of communication is best placed in a cooperative role between the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who can coordinate specific communication from other agencies as needed. There is no need to duplicate resources with multiple communication channels.

Step 3. Make BP A Principal Partner In The Response. Currently, the administration waffles back and forth from positioning BP as the response leader and public enemy number one depending on public outcry. There is no need. BP has accepted responsibility, and while its own communication seems tempered below transparency, it is exceedingly clear that the United States needs its partnership and cooperation to end the crisis. They've hired more than 20,000 people to help.

Step 4. Establish A Response Advisory Counsel. The administration should have already pooled the best scientific, environmental, and industry minds to address the crisis. They need to do it now. There are likely innovations that can be applicable in responding to the crisis, people who can provide counsel to the people on the ground, under the direction of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Step 5. Establish An Economic Advisory Committee. The full scope of the crisis has yet to be fully imagined. Some economic experts are already cautioning that the environmental disaster has enough economic consequence to cause a double dip recession as entire coastal industries have been shut down. Their warnings deserve attention.

Step 6. Save Investigations Until After The Cleanup. While some investigations will no doubt be conducted during the crisis, the emphasis of finding fault in a tragedy is a waste of resources and public attention. Rather than rally the public to smell for blood in the water, it seems more productive to channel their passion to be part of the solution. Every swipe at BP right now is a swipe at the people most capable to fund the cleanup.

Step 7. Coordinate State Action. Some point people from the Unified Command should be dispatched to coordinate regional environmental cleanup efforts with a direct line of internal communication. Given the push back on some members of the press and environmental scientists by non-BP crews, it is clear there are near autonomous groups making up their own rules. It's expected without leadership. They need to be organized and given expressed clear rules. Each state can be involved by coordinating the various local environmental groups and general public under these point people.

Step 8. Direct The Public. Fanning public anger, frustration, and outcry is useless. Instead, more effort and attention need to be coordinated to provide the public with productive action. The bigger picture, beyond political posturing, is that the country is faced with an environmental crisis with consequences that can only be guessed at. Everyday heroes are being made daily as they clean up the spill.

Step 9. Kill The Politicizing. One of the worst communication atrocities made during this crisis to date was a feeble attempt to rub the spill into the noses of those who believe in a limited government. Comments such as "See, you need us now" is a childish comparison to government interventions such as banning Happy Meal toys. This type of crisis is precisely where the government is supposed to take a leadership role in contrast to the encroachment inside our homes.

Step 10. Be Responsible Instead Of Repugnant. When a crisis like this occurs, the knee jerk reaction is to over regulate in response nowadays. Lack of regulation didn't cause the oil spill, but it seems apparent that a breakdown of regulatory oversight contributed. Responsible action would be to reform agencies after the crisis rather than eliminate their ability to function by restructuring them during the crisis.

The Gulf Coast Oil Spill is a tragedy. It is the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States. However, let's keep in mind that the "worst" line has been crossed dozens of times before Deep Horizon. And while it is unfortunate, it is also very likely they will be crossed a dozens or more times in our future despite any regulatory bodies and safety measures put in place. That is the price of nurturing massive human systems.

Even so, while we cannot control the crisis we might face as individuals, industries, or nations, we can always manage how we react to them. Simply put, the response to a crisis need not be as tragic as the crisis itself. That is a choice. In the past, our nation has had dozens of leaders who made the right ones. Nowadays, we can only hope. But it doesn't seem likely.

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