Thursday, October 7

Whitewashing Oil Spills: Control The Crisis Not The Communication

OilHow much did the government whitewash the Gulf Coast oil spill? It almost doesn't matter. When trust relies on reputation, even little lies take their toll during a crisis and during the post-crisis analysis.

In this case, the administration seems poised to defend itself, regardless. After the presidential commission released its largely neutral preliminary report, the rebuttal by the administration has been to criticize any criticisms. The approach was exemplified by the initial response to the report.

"The federal government response was full force and immediate, and the response focused on state and local plans and evolved when needed. As directed by the President, the response was based on science, even when that pitted us against BP or state and local officials, and the response pushed BP every step of the way," — White House Office of Management and Budget

Three Most Critical Areas Where Communication Broke Down.

1. Inconsistent definitions of the relationship between the government and BP. The government attempted to make the case it was deferring to, in charge of, and a partner with BP. Clearly, the government could not be all three simultaneously.

In most circumstances, the definitions of a relationship will only change erratically when the organization is incompetent, or, more likely, is attempting to position the itself to grab any credit but push off any criticism. In this case, more emphasis seems to have been placed on attempting to control public perception instead of the oil spill.

2. Fear of negative public perception. Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the report was that it revealed how the White House was directly involved in controlling information (but not the operation) from the start. According to the Associated Press, the White House budget office even denied a request from NOAA to make public the worst-case scenario estimates.

In most circumstances, the most likely reason any organization would withhold such information, which in this case was actualized, would be because they believed that the denial of these facts would delay public outrage. Specific in this crisis, it seems clear the Unified Command also had worst-case estimates, but did not release them in a timely manner. Some Coast Guard responders are on record as saying that much of the initial effort was slow and unfocused.

3. Too many messengers with conflicting information. In an effort to show more "transparency" and that the government was in control of the crisis, numerous agency heads became involved in a public decision making process rather than deferring to qualified people in the field. This dramatically politicized the crisis.

In most circumstances, organizations that continually shift spokespeople or cater to dozens of spokespeople to make a show of involvement while minimizing accountability for the entire organization. Ergo, if any singular spokesperson misspeaks or if a statement is later proven false, the other spokespeople can refute or denounce what was said.

Crisis Communication Must Be Clear, Accurate, And Human.

Communication is the single most powerful tool in effective governance. However, it can also be the greatest liability unless communication it is clear, accurate, and human.

For this administration, there seems to have been too much emphasis on public perception damage and not enough on environmental damage. Specifically, the administration idealized what public perception it wanted to actualize: The administration was fully vested in minimizing the crisis despite everyone working against them for personal gain.

The reality was very different, enough so that no amount of spin could be believed. Imagine how differently this crisis might have played out if the focus remained on the crisis as opposed to the crisis communication.

Then, the administration would have invested full resources in the initial response and had one spokesperson deliver a consistently honest and accurate accounting of what was being done. Other agency heads could then reinforce the message and their confidence in the spokesperson as well as the decisions being made. In the best case scenario, the administration would have overcommitted and contained the spill. In the worst case scenario, the public would have accepted the damage.

There are only two possible explanations for the way the administration handled the crisis response. Either the administration was overconfident and therefore negligent and incompetent in its handling of the crisis on the front end. Or, it purposely attempted to manipulate public perception to downplay the severity of the crisis or their inability to deal with it.

If you are interested, we've chronicled a great deal of the communication as part of a living case study. Perhaps the most likely explanation can be found there. Or perhaps the better lesson is that effective communication follows action and not our preferred fantasies. Case study closed. Maybe.
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