Wednesday, February 19

Why Drop 'Communication' From The Crisis Communication Plan?

As the Chevron pizza remediation story continues to capture more headlines on CNNForbes, and Newsweek, there are plenty of public relations practitioners anxious to turn the tragedy into a worst case practice. Indeed, offering coupons for free pizza and soda is so dismal it almost defies belief.

Even so, it extraordinarily difficult to turn the living case study into a real life lesson plan when there is another lesson for anyone who believes crisis communication is a core component of public relations. What is the real lesson behind the Chevron pizza coupon debacle being reported by the news?

Don't be content with only the crisis communication plan. Write the crisis plan. 

Before we consider the significance of this lesson, let's recap some of the events as they happened. It mostly played out over eight days.

February 11. A fire was reported at one of the Chevron fracking wells in Green County, Pa. One employee was injured and another was unaccounted for. Employees immediately responded to the fire and called in assistance from Wild Well Control. They also opened a hotline for neighbors to contact.

By 10:50 p.m., the company was able to report details leading up to the incident, clarified that the missing employee was a contractor, and the company continued to issue assurances that appropriate measures were taken.

February 12-14. As the severity of the fire escalated, the company began to monitor the air, surface waters, and noise in the area for impact while stressing that there was no evidence of an increased safety risk beyond the immediate fire. Chevron also provided a generalized update that recognized the impact the incident has had on the local community. The worker was still unaccounted for. 

February 16. The two wells stopped burning, but the company reported it was premature to speculate what caused the flames to go out. (It is likely that the fuel source ran out before the wells could be capped.) At the same time, area residents received hand-delivered letters from the company, which included coupons for one free pizza and one two-liter drink. One worker is still missing. 

February 17-19. As headlines appeared about the pizza coupon given to approximately 100 residents, Chevron continued to provide updates and communicate with local residents. Late in the day on Feb. 19, investigators found evidence of human remains near the location. The company relinquished questions regarding the remains to local law enforcement. 

While most media outlets are focused on the remediation offer of a pizza coupon that Chevron later called a token of resident appreciation for their patience, the real error isn't in allowing community outreach to mitigate neighbor concerns, but either a flawed crisis plan, lack of empathy, or insufficient incident command oversight. Regardless of which proves to be true, it opens an invaluable lesson. 

Communication is a small part of a modern crisis plan. Get used to it.

While I have always been supportive (if not insistent) that organizations develop crisis communication plans, it is also true that most crisis communication plans are only as good as the communication plan they support. The reason this is true is because any crisis communication is only a very small part of any much larger crisis plan. 

To be clear, while the size and scope may vary depending on the incident, most crisis plans include for incident command and four sections: operations, planning, logistics, and finance. Communication, specifically public information officers, generally support incident command (along with safety and liaison officers). If there is a breakdown in any section, communication will likely be a casualty. 

Four years ago in the wake of the Gulf Coast oil spill, I suggested that public relations and crisis communication step up their skill sets by learning the four tenets of disaster planning. Although all four are still important, incident command procedures have evolved and public relations professionals and crisis communicators ought to have updated their skill sets along the way. 

In other words, not only should an incident public information officer understand the crisis communication plan, but they also need to understand every aspect of the crisis plan and be prepared to report on the progress being made by each section based on input from the incident commander. Even better than knowing the crisis plan, crisis communicators ought to ask to get involved in writing it.

If Chevron had done so in this case, it's much more likely that it would have not been preemptive in their offer of pizza remediation. And even if community outreach wanted to be preemptive, incident command or someone from another section might have advised against letting them eat pie (even if a few hardened neighbors said they planned to enjoy a slice). What do you think?
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