Showing posts with label gulf coast oil spill. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gulf coast oil spill. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 19

Talking Too Much: Chevron

Chevron CampaignOn Monday, Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX) launched a new ad campaign entitled “We Agree,” which seeks to establish solidarity with people around the world on key energy issues. It also describes the actions the company takes in producing energy responsibly and in supporting the communities where it operates.

The campaign can best be likened to throwing a family of mongooses—all sporting T-shirts that say "some of my best friends are snakes"—into a cobra pit. I don't know exactly what would happen, but chances are those little guys on either side wouldn't stand around and sing Kumbaya.

And yet, this is the thinking behind Chevron's new campaign, except its T-shirts read "It's time oil companies get behind the development of renewable energy" as an extension of its longer running campaign Will You Join Us.

It also comes at a time when Chevron is embattled with an Ecuadorian lawsuit. Sure, the lawsuit recently lost some credibility as raw footage might suggest collusion to inflate the extent of the Amazon rainforest pollution (that the company may or may not be partly responsible for), but telling the truth requires the right timing. And regardless of where you stand on energy issues, this was not the right time.

Sometimes The Truth Is Reliant On Timing.

Big corporations make easy targets. Oil companies are especially soft. It's difficult for them to hold any defensive position when they produce a product that — despite demand for it — has been singled out as one of the most harmful to the environment.

"We hear what people say about oil companies – that they should develop renewables, support communities, create jobs and protect the environment – and the fact is, we agree,” said Rhonda Zygocki, vice president of policy, government and public affairs at Chevron. “This campaign demonstrates our values as a company and the greater value we provide in meeting the world’s demand for energy. There is a lot of common ground on energy issues if we take the time to find it.”

Zygocki is right. Most oil companies want to embrace renewable energy. It is on the drawing board for any company that hopes to have sustainability. In 2007, Chevron was among the first to admit 10 percent of Americans “hate us and our industry and there’s nothing we can do to change their minds." Since the Gulf Coast oil spill, which involved another oil company campaigning for green, that hate has grown exponentially.

Naturally, Chevron didn't launch the campaign to attempt to clean up ill feelings over the Gulf as some people initially speculated. That wasn't (even though it should have been) a consideration. This campaign hopes to minimize some of the damage caused by the film Crude and the Ecuadorian lawsuit, which is still being played out to determine who might be the biggest villains.

This is also why the timing of the campaign launch couldn't be worse. The situation for Chevron in Ecuador might have improved as new information is being brought to light but the verdict is still out. So instead of coming across as more green or responsible, the only thing the company has succeeded in doing is drawing even more attention to the ugliness of the case.

Chevron Earns Push Back Before The Campaign Is Launched.

Almost immediately, the release sent out by Chevron was parodied. And some publications, unfortunately, ran with this news release, which is tied to this spoof Website. It seems fact-checking is optional these days.

It also wasn't the only parody release. I received a second release yesterday morning, also a spoof, quoting a frothy mad CEO as vowing to take revenge on the "environmental groups" that hijacked their new campaign. While I didn't bother to verify who sent the mock release, I suspect it also belongs to the Yes Men.

I've written about them before. The media generally likes them, except when the media gets punked. The giveaway in the one I received was that it was published under the guise of a shareholder message. I don't own investments in Chevron. I've also read plenty of real shareholder statements.

You Do Have More Than Two Choices.

Barry Silverstein, writing for the brandchannel, tried to sum it up with his lead-in. "When your brand's industry has a major PR problem, you either hide your head in the sand, or get out there and make a statement," he wrote.

And therein lies most of the problems with marketing and public relations today. There aren't two choices. There are a million choices. And the reason Chevron picked one of the worst choices is exactly why its industry has a public relations problem.

They talk too much. They talk so much, I am almost convinced they never listen. There is only one way the oil companies can regain some lost ground. They have to stop telling stories and start having dialogues. Specifically, they must start having dialogues with people who don't like them. And then, those people, will be the ones who tell the stories.

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.

Wednesday, August 25

Taking Media Out Of Social Media: CitizenGulf

Citizen GulfIn Boston, it will take place at The Precinct Bar. In Houston, you can hook up at the Continental Club. In Santa Monica, it's the Sulkin Secant Gallery.

These locations and seventeen more across the United States have become the local connections for a national event to do one thing right. Hundreds of people are working together, online and offline, to raise funds for fishing families impacted by the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

While each event location varies in planned entertainment and environmental awareness, they all show solidarity in hosting gatherings loosely themed around a New Orleans-style event with live jazz, blues, or Zydeco music and speakers knowledgeable about the environmental impact. Most local events were coordinated by the Social Media Club chapters from coast to coast.

CitizenGulf National Day of Action

In addition to these 20 events, smaller unofficial fundraisers are taking place across the nation. And for people who are unable to attend, there are plenty of ways to help support area fishermen, including Bloggers Unite, where bloggers and other social media site owners can list their online contributions in building awareness.

You can help too. Check the event listings to find an event location near you and post a link on your Facebook page or send up a shout out on Twitter to let your friends know how they can make a difference. If they cannot attend, CitizenEffect is coordinating online donations for this nationwide effort.

There are more ways you can help. Take a look at the various Pepsi Refresh Gulf initiatives proposed by dozens of individuals and organizations. Vote for you favorites, including the Gulf Coast Benefit, which is directly tied to CitizenGulf National Day of Action. (Pepsi has pledged $1.3 million toward ideas that specifically benefit the Gulf Coast.) There are seven days left to vote as of Aug. 25.

CitizenGulf And Social Media.

CitizenGulf National Day of Action represents one of the best uses of social media, coordinating events online to host simultaneous activities across the country in an effect to raise funds for a tangible project that benefits people in need. You can learn more about the plight of fishermen's families at Liquid [Hip], an online review site that helped build early awareness after Geoff Livingston's inspired call for support.

Proceeds from online donations and event donations will be awarded to Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. This benefactor was chosen because it is deeply entrenched in supporting afflicted communities and well-suited to developing educational programs that benefit fishing families.

CitizenEffect chose the benefactor after traveling to the area and surveying residents. It made sense to choose the nonprofit best equipped to provide support and one that area residents readily supported as opposed to creating a duplicate program.

Likewise, CitizenEffect, along with its partners, has done something few event organizations do. Rather than "own" the event and attempt to drive people to a singular location or one-time contribution, CitizenGulf National Day of Action allows people to help in whatever way they wish. No action is too small or contribution overlooked, easily making it a best practice in effecting social change. They should be commended.

How about you? Do you have an extra 30 seconds today to help build awareness for this worthwhile cause? If you do, please send up a tweet, post, or shout out to your friends and family. I am almost certain others would do it for you if the roles were reversed. Good night and good luck. And thank you.

Wednesday, July 28

Telling Fibs: Why BP Photoshop Blunders Are Big News

BP Photoshop Photo
With Tony Hayworth, CEO of BP, stepping down to be replaced by Robert Dudley in October, many people have the same question. Can Dudley turn BP around, clean up the Gulf, and restore the company's reputation? At the moment, the answer is maybe.

October is a long time away, which may give Dudley a cleaner start than if he took over today. But the real challenge for BP isn't a change in leadership but a change in company culture. As one of the world's largest energy companies, that won't be an easy task.

The smallest fibs, not the largest, can be the most telling.

BP's liberal and enthusiastic use of Photoshop, not once but twice, became one of the biggest stories because the fibs were so terribly small. And that might mean something beyond the Photoshop lessons some very creative folks have left sprinkled around the Web. (It's hard to pick a favorite.)

• The company's code of conduct is being ignored.
• The culture has accepted a standard of deceit.
• The smallest of details don't really matter at all.

Years ago, when I was working on one of my first political campaigns, we discovered that the primary opponent had lied. Not only did he not have a degree in the field stated on his literature, but the college he had attended never offered such a degree.

Upon discovering this, we began a much more rigorous investigation better known as opposition research. Of about twenty points made to convince people that he was the best candidate, about 14 of them were either made up or patently false.

One fib on its own might have been forgiven by the public. But anything more than a dozen fibs was a lofty number. It didn't matter how small some of them seemed to be. Tell enough half truths, spins, and misstatements and any brand or reputation will eventually collapse. There seems to be a mountain of them related to Deepwater Horizon and the Gulf Coast oil spill.

Have you ever read the BP Code of Conduct? It begins as "one of the world’s leading companies, we have a responsibility to set high standards: to be, and be seen to be, a business which is committed to integrity."

How do you feel about that statement today, knowing that the company culture seemed to have embraced a general rule that tiny lies, little breaches of protocol, and miniscule lapses in following safety standards were somehow acceptable. As long as the paperwork looked good and nobody was hurt, did it really matter? It mattered on April 20.

On some things, it's better not to give an inch. The poorly done Photoshop pictures weren't being sent out as cover shots for the annual report. They were being provided as part of a slew of shots meant to convince us that BP was on top of the problem.

Obviously they weren't. The problem is on the inside.

*The above commenter photo can be found on Gizmodo, posted on July 22 by Jeremy "Bobafett."

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Wednesday, June 30

Bankrupting Credibility: Nobody Believes BP Anymore

When Facebook disabled the profile of Boycott BP, the reaction from 750,000 members was almost immediate. Within minutes, most people, including Public Citizen, believed a BP complaint prompted the action.

Facebook, which reinstated the content, later issued a statement that said its automated systems made the mistake. The page was reinstated after the error was discovered. Public Citizen says the statement was insufficient.

Regardless of the why, it raises interesting questions for communicators, suggesting a need for new rules governing how crisis communication is managed. And, it also serves as an indicator of how damaged the BP brand really is. Even when BP isn't responsible for attempting to censor communication, blame is automatically assigned to the company.

It's anticipated and expected, because the public expects no less from a company that has broken trust. BP has made several mistakes in attempting to control communication as opposed to managing information. It doesn't even matter if almost half of all censor incidents were created by the government. It's BP's fault.

The Rise Of The Anti-Brand, Fake Public Relations, and Instant Journalism.

Andrew Fowler suggested several steps worth considering. But any solutions have to be situational.

In the case of BP, company communicators might as well consider the site an asset. BP boycotters and BPGlobalPR actually help corral all communication about the company, providing insights into where the communication is crumbling and what miscommunication or inaccurate information might exist.

The goal isn't to control communication. There isn't much use in sharing an opinion about them. The goal needs to be focused on managing information, with an emphasis not on trying to preserve the brand (BP is well beyond that) but by clarifying factual information (and not necessarily directly).

BP does some of this well. Some of it, not so well. Some of it well. Some of it, not so well...

You may reproduce the images on the understanding that (i) any reproduction of these images will include the following acknowledgement adjacent to the image(s) used - '© BP p.l.c.' and (ii) these images will not be used in connection with any purpose that is prejudicial to BP, its officers or employees or any other third party. The images may not be sold.

From a classic crisis communication standpoint, some communicators are giving BP a "B" for hitting all the main points. Personally, I would give it an "F" and that seems pretty generous.

The reason for my low mark is simple enough. Classic crisis communication bullet points do not address several key challenges that arise when communication isn't handled properly.

The Anti-Brand. Whether spontaneous or organized by advocates with agendas, anti-brands already know the tenets of crisis communication and are well-prepared to discount every step. Any apology will be labeled insincere. Any accounting will be inadequate. Any acceptance of responsibility will not be believed.

Fake PR. Whether you borrow Fowler's term or call them Mock Brands, the general disposition is the same. These people aim to mock you and your company. Sometimes the efforts are a form of flattery; sometimes they are not. Obviously, the various fake accounts related to BP have very little to do with admiration.

Instant Journalism. While there are mainstream reporters and established citizen journalists, a crisis of this magnitude draws out people who have never been reporters before to suddenly feel compelled to cover it. En masse, handling every request just doesn't scale.

What's the remedy? As I wrote early on in the crisis, actions speak louder than words. And in this case, there were only three words tied to actions that could have helped preserve BP (and the Obama administration for that matter). What were those words?

We need help.

Imagine how different the communication might have been had this action been the cornerstone of the crisis from day one.

Skimmers would have dispatched. Booms would have been deployed. Media would have had front row seats. People would have known exactly what to do to help. Environmentalists would have been standing by. Localized emergency response crews would have been ready for multiple crises if and when they occurred. Nonprofit organizations would have coordinated economic impact. And so on and so forth.

Had this occurred, BP wouldn't even be the story and neither would the Obama administration. The story would have been the generosity of the Dutch and other countries sending skimmers. The story would have been local citizens preparing for the worst. The story would have been about a country uniting against a common problem. In sum, the story would have been about everything and everybody else except BP and except the government.

By not being the story, the damage to both could have minimized and, as a result, the respective brands preserved. Instead of a Boycott BP Facebook group, there might have been a "Help BP" Facebook group. Instead of "BPGlobalPR," there might have been an "DailyGulfHero" Twitter account. Instead of writing and reporting on all the problems, citizen volunteers documenting their own volunteer efforts, uncensored, would have quelled the need.

Neither BP nor the Obama administration seem to understand this simple truth. Action or inaction dictates brand value. Instead, they continue to make themselves the story and inexplicably tell people to sit back and rate their performance. The sheer magnitude of ego to "own this crisis" cannot be underscored enough.

They got what they asked for. You don't have to ask for it.

The first step toward a remedy for anti-brands, fake PR, and investigative journalists is to recognize that they are outcomes, symptoms that prove your actions are not aligned with your message. And knowing this, there are only four possible actions.

• Acknowledge them and let them live, unhindered. (Apple)
• Selectively interact, correcting facts but not opinions. (AT&T)
• Engage them by opening up a direct communication channel. (CBS)
• Change your actions until they no longer seem relevant or needed. (Dominos)

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Monday, June 21

Talking On Target: A Lesson In Public Speaking

Wondering why President Obama continues to slide in the polls and Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, was ousted from the daily operations of the BP oil spill? Both men delivered poor performances in public speaking and it undermined any faith in their ability lead.

One came across like a lawyer at best, administrator at worst, mostly concerned about an obscured vision of the future. The other came across as being overly coached by lawyers, paralyzed by an obscured vision of the past. It seems obvious that neither men are living in the present as both seem out of touch with the public.

An Analysis Of President Obama's BP Oil Spill Speech.

If there is any doubt that President Obama's BP oil spill speech was the low water mark of presidential speeches since he took office, a new study of Presidential speeches by HCD Research confirms it. On a scale of 1-7, the speech rated 4.4 among Americans, marking a continual decline in the president's likability, believability, and sincerity. The more he speaks, the less he's liked.

What went wrong for the one with the once silver tongue?

While less than scientific, a word cloud of the transcript reveals the flawed strategy behind the speech. The transcript wasn't about the oil spill crisis. It was about clean energy.

The decision to use the spill as a platform for petroleum reform rather than what Americans wanted to hear — how will we plug the leak, mitigate the clean up, and provide help for those affected — was flawed. No matter how you slice the speech, President Obama's emphasis fell just short of calling this disaster a failing of the American people for not being more aggressive on alternative energy.

While there is a time and place for everything, the administration clearly missed that this was not the time or place. Post polling shows the public believes overwhelmingly that President Obama has failed in handling the BP oil spill. It also raised severe doubts about his ability to handle a future crisis. Worse for Obama, there is ample evidence to suggest long-term damage compounded by continued missteps.

After his speech, his second term re-election outlook dropped an additional one or two percent among ALL political groupings (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents). While it is a long way until the next election, Obama's re-election chances are increasingly grim, with 27 percent of his own party unwilling to vote for him again. More than 61 percent of Independents and 91 percent of Republicans feel the same way.

Was there anything redeeming about Obama's speech? Yes. The sticking point picked up by a friendly media was to press BP and create a $20 billion escrow fund. When BP agreed a few days later, it was a minor victory among an ocean of missteps. Obama said he would make BP pay, they agreed. Of course, they intended to all along.

An Analysis Of Tony Hayward's BP Oil Spill Testimony.

Although Hayward's testimony performance has earned the scorn of the American public and pushed aside (hat tip: Geoff Livingston) as the man in charge of the company’s response, most media covered only a portion of the story. Hayward's prepared testimony wasn't all that far away from capturing public trust. It was the question/answer/statement section that crushed his opportunity.

The prepared testimony itself, at a glance, focused on the facts with an emphasis on the current BP response. Where it still missed, however, was that Hayward doesn't have the answers Americans want. They want to know precisely what went wrong and who is liable, facts that will still take months to sort out (beyond the most obvious, of course).

Another aspect missing from the testimony was genuine remorse and an apparent inability to provide reasoned responses to the congressional grandstanding. Instead, focusing on coaching from attorneys, Hayward frequently appeared to duck and dodge the questions as if he had nothing more to say.

Was there anything redeeming about Hayward's stint? Yes. While the American media played up his lack of answers, the international media saw it differently.

All they saw were a few American congressional leaders working hard to paint BP and Hayward as public enemy number one. So, while Hayward might be performing on U.S. soil, the global community chalked up the exercise as American congressmen looked stupid and petty in the hopes of trying to pad their own re-election campaigns.

What Can Be Learned From Public Speaking In A Crisis?

Stay on topic. Stay on topic. Stay on topic.

Winston Churchill did not address policy change or progressive ideas in his speech "We Shall Fight on the Beaches." He did speak of his country's failures in allowing the roots of fascism to take hold in Germany or in acting too late as the Nazi party expanded its reach across the Europe. He stayed on topic, without concern for how many words were in each sentence. His audience got it.

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

John F. Kennedy did not shrink from responsibility in ushering forth a new era and new frontier, crying that a minority of legislators were somehow undermining the majority. No, instead of focusing on division, he focused on unified ideas that could bring people to solve the current crisis of the day. His audience got it.

"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Where Obama And Hayward Fail Most Miserably.

They both lack passion and inspired nothing. Instead, they drifted away from their respective responsibility of communication: Obama as a choice and Hayward because he doesn't know what Americans want to know. Worse, they offer up that "nothing more can be done than what they are doing." Americans, they say, need to wait patiently and place faith in their leadership.

That hardly works in America. The citizens are used to taking action when faced with a crisis. And when government doesn't deliver, they tend to take matters into their own hands, resenting those who failed to act in a manner greater than the crisis. Ergo, if the crisis requires a hammer plan, they expect the President to fix it with a sledgehammer plan.

Don't these guys get it? Handling a crisis is not public relations. It's about taking immediate action that is grounded in the present. You can lynch anyone you want, but put the fire out first. You can use every keyword on the planet, but your brand still sucks while the leak gushes oil.

One final thought, it seems to me that both men miss one word that has been included in virtually all great speeches. The word is "WE." And yet, both Obama and Hayward seem to avoid it. The only exception is that Obama uses "we" when referring to his administration and Hayward says "we" when he is talking about his company.

Don't these guys get it? This isn't an "us and them" story with the American public listed under the "them" column. Those people down there, whether funded by BP or directed by the White House, are Americans doing the work. They don't visit the spill area now and again. They live there, every day.

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Wednesday, June 16

Seizing Leadership: Jamie Hinton Is A Patriot

Although President Obama addressed the nation about the oil spill last night, he neglected to mention one local hero who deserves more attention as a role model for other Gulf Coast community leaders. Jamie Hinton, chief of the Magnolia Springs Volunteer Fire Department, took matters into his own hands to protect his idyllic community off Mobile Bay.

He deployed a combination of barges and oil-blocking booms to keep crude out of the Magnolia River. The Associated Press reported that his solution, which came from the collective ideas of locals hoping to safeguard the Magnolia River and the nearby Fish River, to do something despite being told not to.

"It's illegal to block this waterway. But if the oil comes, we're going to bring a barge in and use it as a gate to block it," said Gib Hixon, friend of Hinton and chief of Fish River/Marlow Fire and Rescue. "They can arrest me and Jamie if they want to."

Unlike many communities on the Gulf Coast, Hinton decided it was his responsibility to do something despite being blocked by red tape and what the Associated Press described as bumbling government and corporate executives. According to the story, Hinton was initially told by county officials that the oil spill was being blown out of proportion. Much of the delay to finally approve the community's plan once it became clear the oil spill was not blown out of proportion, is attributed to a breakdown of who could approve measures to safeguard Magnolia Springs.

"First, the cleanup," said President Obama last night. "From the very beginning of this crisis, the federal government has been in charge of the largest environmental cleanup effort in our nation’s history..."

This single quote from Obama's speech explains the reality and gravity of the situation. It explains why the government attempted to prevent people like Hinton from taking action. It explains why the Norway's offer of eight skimming systems was disapproved. It explains why the Dutch offer of three sets of COSEQ sweeping arms was denied. And Canada's offer of 3,000 meters of containment boom was passed upon too.

In sum, other governments were prepared to respond to this crisis faster than BP and the Obama administration. Why didn't they? Unlike previous administrations, which granted waivers for the Jones Act in the wake of a national crisis, this administration has held fast to the act, which requires vessels working in U.S. waters be built in the U.S. and be crewed by U.S. workers. Meanwhile, other early efforts to clean up the spill were discouraged by environmental policies.

If the oil spill is a "siege," it seems it is a siege of the administration's own making. Fortunately, there are a few communities like Magnolia Springs that have stepped up against the siege to protect themselves while the White House attempts to manage a spill of a different kind. Spin is not enough. We need more Americans like Jamie Hinton. They tend to talk less and then step up.

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Friday, June 4

Planning For Disaster: Communicators And PR Must Step Up

While my grandparents were poor by most definitions, my grandfather would go to great lengths to protect one of the last remnants of his family's possessions in the north woods town of Minocqua, Wisconsin. It was a summer cottage, for which he mortgaged his city home in Milwaukee every year in order to keep and maintain it until he retired. My uncle also owned a nearby home.

As one of the few four-season families in the area, my uncle was a natural leader. In addition to being to a small business owner, he served as a volunteer fire chief, mayor, and led teams to mark snowmobile trails across the partially frozen lake every winter. My grandfather, who was a former engineer and seasonal painter, was much the same.

Both men had experience in disaster planning. Coming from a small somewhat isolated community, it was a skill set that could not be left to other people. I even remember my grandfather putting his skills to good use when tornadoes interrupted a Boy Scout paper drive in the heart of Milwaukee. People immediately turned to him to lead.

Nowadays, there are fewer men like my uncle and grandfather, especially in urban areas. Disaster response tends to be left to professionals. But in considering the Gulf Coast catastrophe, it seems we need more citizens to understand response.

In fact, looking back on my recent guest host conversation on The El Show with Geoff Livingston, I think we might have invested some time on disaster planning beyond discussing how communicators can address unethical behavior. Communicators, even public relations professionals, need to establish a role within any disaster planning. It's vital that they do.

The Four Basic Tenets Of Disaster Planning.

1. Mitigation. Mitigation focuses on long-term measures to reduce or eliminate risk. These might include technologies or policies, set in place by companies or government.

2. Preparedness. Planning, organizing, training, evaluating, and improving activities that will ensure the proper coordination of efforts during a disaster.

3. Response. Response includes the mobilization of all necessary emergency services and first responders in the disaster area. Organized response requires a structure (leadership) and agility (creativeness).

4. Recovery. Recovery aims to restore the affected area to its previous state before the disaster. This almost always occurs after a disaster; it is the opportunity to assess where mitigation, preparedness, and response broke down.

Where Disaster Planning Broke Down With The Spill.

1. Mitigation. It seems obvious that neither the government nor BP (and subcontractors) had properly mitigated the potential for such a disaster. While policies were in place, it seems clear the regulatory agency did not have the technical expertise to oversee the procedural breakdown that led to increased risk at Deepwater Horizon.

2. Preparedness. To date, it seems obvious that the preparedness is almost non-existent. While the initial response saved most of the crew aboard the rig, neither BP nor the federal government has a plan for a large-scale coastal disaster. While this incident seems to have been caused by negligence, it strikes me as appalling that the government is largely unprepared for such a disaster.

3. Response. Given the failure of emergency response in the wake of Katrina, which was largely due to a complete breakdown in communications technology (I know because I've worked with the National Emergency Number Association, among other emergency response associations), it is perplexing that a new administration consisting of people who were hypercritical of and capitalized on Katrina would have done nothing to improve their ability to respond to a crisis. There is no communications technology breakdown this time. But there is a complete breakdown in appropriate federal leadership and agility over the response.

4. Recovery. Recovery is not simply litigation as our government has recently demonstrated as the answer for every problem ranging from the border issues in Arizona to the Gulf Coast oil spill. There is an apparent need to understand where the government's disaster planning continues to break down, not only with this administration but also prior administrations. The fundamental responsibility of any government is to protect its people — not from themselves — but from threats beyond the control of citizens. This time around it seems negligence played a role in the breakdown, but what about next time?

Where Any Communicator Can Effectively Play A Role.

Communicators, along with public relations professionals, have a real opportunity here to place a greater emphasis on tangible skills over manipulating public procedures. But to do it, they move beyond push marketing and puffery and embrace the much harder work that used to fall to people like my grandfather and uncle.

In many cases, they won't learn these skills from a textbook or building social media communities. It requires an ability to move from behind the desk, meet with and appreciate the men and women on the front lines, collect their input and consolidate it into a workable plan that anyone can follow.

More importantly, through their investigative work, communicators need to provide the oversight within their companies to point out where mitigation, response, and recovery is especially weak. Nothing needs to be smoothed over. If anything, people tasked with this work need to be as hard as nails, providing proper assessments to the executive team.

As I mentioned last week, bad PR is only a symptom of bad planning, I hope this helps move the conversation away from understanding and toward proactive responsibility. Communicators need not only be internal reporters, they can cut themselves from the same cloth as my grandfather and uncle.

Where Any Citizen Can Effectively Play A Role.

I might offer up the same advice to anyone. It seems apparent that while many local governments and some state governments have disaster response plans that we can count on, these plans are not scalable in the face of a disaster such as Gulf Coast oil spill, the aftermath of Katrina, the border breakdown in Arizona, or even the flooding in Tennessee.

Once they become too big for local and state agencies, the federal government is ill-equipped to respond beyond providing oversight. That means there is a greater need for citizens, each and every one of us, to have enough skills — like my grandfather and uncle did — to protect ourselves and our families in the wake of a disaster.

After all, if I was writing a family disaster plan today, the most obvious conclusion I would have to draw upon from the recovery efforts so far is that there are organizations doing all sorts of things that increase the risks to our health and happiness. And when their own mitigation breaks down, they do not have a plan to save you. We are on our own.

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Thursday, June 3

Considering Spin: Obama Administration

"Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred." — President Obama

Depending on whose accounting of the Gulf Coast oil spill you read, the Obama administration was either on top of the crisis from day one or it was woefully behind. The truth, as it often is nowadays, is somewhere in the middle.

The differences in how the story is reported relates to whether you include the federal government in the timeline, the Obama administration, or the President himself; whether you accept statements over actions; and whether you account for the results.

"From the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort." — President Obama

While the U.S. Coast Guard was on scene from day one, most federal agencies represented were merely overseeing BP efforts.

It wasn't until April 29, nine days after the accident and four days after the unified command inaccurately estimated the leak was spewing 1,000 barrels or 42,000 gallons a day (which was estimated at five times as much and later much more), that the Obama administration recognized the spill to be of national significance.

The reporting reveals how much of the communication would be handled from that point forward. On April 25, the unified command provided the inaccurate oil leak estimate, which included federal officials. On April 28, federal officials say BP provided an inaccurate estimate.

Meanwhile, the same press conference Media Matters uses to build its case to prove the administration was in control of the situation paints an obvious picture. The President was "following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico," the EPA was monitoring, and the secretary of the Interior accurately describes the operations as one of "anticipating," "planning," and providing "oversight."

April 29 is also the day President Obama pledges "every single available resource," including the U.S. military, to contain the spreading spill. He will visit the Gulf Coast to see cleanup efforts firsthand three days later. At the same time, almost every communication from the White House reinforces that the cleanup responsibility belongs to BP.

Almost a full month after Obama made the pledge, Bobby Jindal, Louisiana governor, said that he and other Gulf Coast governors were “taking matters into our own hands.” On June 2, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley questioned why parts of the Gulf Coast are left unprotected. On the same day, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is no longer downplaying the crisis. And while Florida continues to invest in tourism advertising free unlicensed fishing weekends while it can, the fishing industry has already been called a disaster.

Worse, the Gulf Coast may no longer be the only region to be impacted. There is growing concern that oil will reach the Atlantic Coast.

And yet, during President Obama's second visit to the area on May 28, with the prospect of the Top Kill procedure working, he declared "I am the president and the buck stops with me." Shortly after the procedure failed, the President launched a public relations offensive against BP and started to see the accident as an opportunity to press for an energy reform plan.

"I'm confident people are going to look back and say this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis." — President Obama.

According to a release by the Global Language Monitor’s NarrativeTracker, President Obama's confidence ought to be shaken. Overwhelmingly, the public sees the the administration was slow to respond and more than half still don't believe the administration is in control.

• 95 percent of the social media conversations characterize President Obama as "slow to respond."
• Despite what President Obama has said, 52 percent still believe that BP is in charge of the spill containment.
• Most people compare the spill to Exxon Valdez, not Hurricane Katrina, which was a natural disaster.
• The public is split in deciding whether or not Obama is hands on or hands off on this event.

So where is the middle? The federal government (specifically, the U.S. Coast Guard) was on top of the spill from day one. The Obama administration merely positioned itself as an armchair player. Politically, it seemed like the safe bet. If things went well, the administration could claim being on top of it. If things went bad, they could blame BP. The communication bears this out.

As for public perception, it has become a result unto itself. With a catastrophe this large, the only possible way the public might be confused over who is in charge is a direct result of the communication delivered by the administration. As for the President himself, his schedule suggests he is correct in that this has been his administration's top priority, but not necessarily his priority.

And now? The most obvious priority is finding the right scapegoat. Even the international press sees it for what it is, with the President's reported "rage" framed up as just another sign of weakness. BP might be responsible for the spill, but it is not responsible for a plan that reads like more spin than response.

Other Reactions Around The Web.

Welcome to the Obama BP Spin War.
Obama Begins Spill-To-Bill Pivot.
Oil-Spill Spin: Who Can You Trust? (Obama Is Not Even On The List)
• James Carville Slams Obama on Oil Spill.
• How Washington Just Worsened the Gulf Oil Spill.

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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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Tuesday, June 1

Lacking Leadership: Minerals Management Service

With the Obama administration facing its first crisis without a discernible opponent to discredit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently offered up one solution. Blame Bush for the Minerals Management Service, which is the regulatory agency that oversees offshore drilling.

This time around, the excuse seems as desperate as her disgust over being asked whether she would donate hair to help. The reason her allegations seem disingenuous only requires a quick review of the facts.

Minerals Management Service Backgrounder

In the Gulf Coast, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) is partly responsible because it was the one agency that could have pulled the plug on the bad decisions being made. The agency didn't. Even when BP sent unusual rapid-fire requests to modify permits, the agency seemed to keep pace, approving some within as little as five minutes.

Neither BP nor Transocean has commented on the permit changes. And despite the promises of an administration to be more forthcoming and transparent, MMS declines to comment too. Perhaps nobody is talking because they all know the risks.

Sure, MMS had a track record of problems that came to light after the inspector general published a devastating report in 2008. The report revealed ethical lapses related to the MMS royalty collection program and officials at its Lakewood office who had engaged in drug use and sexual activities with industry insiders. But those problems do not necessarily lead to the crisis.

Contrary, according to previous statements from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the agency had already been beaten into submission with reprimands, terminations, and criminal prosecutions. Salazar himself took the lead in reforming what he described as a corrupt culture. But after his house cleaning, it seems Salazar failed to fix the damage.

As soon as Elizabeth Birnbaum, who recently resigned, took charge of MMS about 10 months ago, she found a demoralized agency ill-equipped to meet the new priority of renewable energy. Clicking on the link to the MMS DOI Strategic Plan seems to confirm it. The return reads "file not found."

While there is no plan, it does seem Birnbaum cared and was trying to manage the leaderless agency, funneling most of her energy into offshore wind projects in the Atlantic. And, she wasn't afraid to speak on the Gulf Coast crisis. In fact, she was preparing to testify before a congressional panel about the agency's role in handling BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But Salazar's office didn't want her to testify. She resigned shortly after.

The Missed Opportunity For MMS

Despite its own negligence that contributed to the Deepwater Horizon crisis, standard communication protocol would have called for MMS to take charge of its communication much like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took charge of the crisis created by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) in 2009. So why didn't it?

House Speaker Pelosi already provides the answer. Allowing MMS to become the point team on the crisis communication would have circumvented the administration's ability to deflect responsibility.

So instead of MMS (or the EPA as an alternative) taking the communication lead, the Department of the Interior all but silenced MMS before proceeding to break it up into parts. In place of a centralized communication channel, like we saw with the FDA or even FEMA in the wake of Katrina, the public is given a collection of sometimes contradictory statements about the crisis and who is in control.

Even at the special Deepwater Horizon Response Web site, it is unclear who is responsible for managing the content. It's every agency for themselves. There is no leadership.

Sure, the Deepwater Horizon Response site includes the 15 different agencies and companies that make up the Unified Command, but it does not assign any particular agency or company responsible for updates. While U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen is now identified as the national incident commander, he was also the first to honestly admit that the federal government was not broadly "in charge."

It was this candid, honest response that prompted the American Spectator to call him the only adult on-scene commander for this disaster. Clearly, he ought to be charge if for no other reason than to stop the non-communication coming from Department of Interior, The White House, and other agencies. (Even this weekend, I received a news release from the EPA with nothing more than a visitation tally count among the President and other cabinet members.)

Why all the confusion? The reality seems to be that no one is in control of the spill or the cleanup. And the sheer lack of a centralized communication plan can only be indicative of a top-down failure to establish any centralized leadership.

The international community is just now seizing on this fact, noting that U.S. authorities took unnecessarily long to define the incident as a national disaster and failed to appreciate early enough that BP had no ready and obvious solution for stopping the leak. For them, it's all too obvious in the speeches being delivered by President Obama.

Obama seems to be waffling on whether to call BP a partner or public enemy number one. In one speech, he even drove home the point that his administration was in control but then stressed BP was letting him down as it called the shots. It can't be both. Or can it?

As investigations continue, the administration can expect the questions will become more and more difficult. The international community is already asking why the Obama administration was poised to open up more offshore drilling when they weren't confident in the regulatory agency overseeing it and without an emergency oil spill response plan.

So far, instead of answering those questions, President Obama has pledged to bring those responsible to justice. Ironically, such a move might include his administration; if not for the leak, then for the containment of it.

A special thanks to Geoff Livingston for inviting me to discuss some of these issues on his online radio show, EL Show, today. Tomorrow, we'll present some ideas on how the administration could attempt to turn the crisis communication failure around.

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Friday, May 28

Shifting Communication: Transocean Acts Under Siege

Much like Halliburton, the Transocean Web site remains unchanged by the Gulf Coast oil spill.

The most haunting page of all falls under the tab of responsibility. "At Transocean, we firmly believe that the safety of people underpins our success. Our safety vision above covers all our drilling units and shore-based facilities worldwide." And then there is the promise in big bold letters splash across the page as the header.

"Our operations will be conducted in an incident-free workplace, all the time, everywhere."

It's not just a headline by Transocean. It's also the company's vision statement.

Just off the front page, the only section mentioning drilling rig Deepwater Horizon is under news releases. All of its communication there has been a steady stream of releases, with an emphasis on the event from April 21 to April 26. April 26 marks the day that Transocean communication decisively changes.

The Communication Snap At Transocean.

What changed? Transocean shifts from crisis communication to increasingly defensive protectionism. After sending a message to investors that the total insured value of the rig is $560 million on April 26, releases shift to a limitation of liability petition for approximately $26 million as a necessary step to protect the interests of its employees, its shareholders and the company.

After that decisive turn, most communication becomes reactionary to rumors and the news reporting on those rumors, including the alleged distribution of any incident response forms that promised cash for cooperation. Four days later, Cheryl D. Richard, senior vice president of human resources and IT, announces her pending retirement.

The next and last communication, on May 25, responds to what it calls erroneous reports relating to its "shareholders' approval of a dividend and its intent to avoid liability arising from the Deepwater Horizon incident or to profit from such incident." The release goes on to say that "Transocean will honor all of its legal obligations arising from the Deepwater Horizon accident."

A statement seems to contradict its limitation of liability petition. Meanwhile, the company's online newsletter Beacon, appears frozen in winter 2010, filled with letters of praise. It's biannual employee publication is frozen even earlier; the last available issue published in 2008.

Coincidently, perhaps, 2008 also seems to represent a shift in company behavior. Between 2008 and 2009, Transocean went from a hot stock pick to a company that seemed to move away from the aforementioned safety-laced vision. The company had five management appointments, two vice president appointments, and a change in the nation where it is incorporated. It moved from the Cayman Islands to Switzerland.

The Transocean Connection To The Spill.

For those who might not know, Transocean was the owner and operator of Deepwater Horizon. As such, Lamar McKay, the president and chairman of BP, has alluded that the blame belongs there (despite BP accepting responsibility for the cleanup). Transocean CEO Steve Newman responded by saying it was not the time for finger pointing ... before attempting to shift blame away from his own embattled company.

If there is any truth to some of the stories surfacing in papers today, the Deep Horizon incident plays out like many construction contractor-subcontractor relationships.

Subcontractors sometimes drag their feet, which places pressure on the supervising contractor to exert influence. In one summary offered up by the Huffington Post, which criticizes the absence of two key testimony witness, it seems to be the most logical scenario, with "Donald Vidrine, BP's 'company man,' overruled the rig's chief mechanic and driller and pushed to speed up the process by remove the drilling mud faster to save BP money on the day of the tragic explosion."

It would make sense, given many of the initial delays were related to the Halliburton slowdown. However, there is one write-up that smacks of perception. If oil rigs are anything like ships, BP could probably not overrule a chief mechanic and put Transocean at risk unless the owner-operator was predisposed or ordered to follow contractual obligations and ignore the company's eroding vision to allow safety to lead to success.

The Psychology Of Influence And Erosion Of Communication.

If you worked as a pizza delivery driver and the boss told you to drive 20 miles per hour over the speed limit to shave 15 minutes off the delivery time, you might be inclined to say no. Some people might even say hell no. On Deepwater Horizon, Transocean said yes.

Once again, it seems Milgram was right. The question that ought to be asked is what convinced a chief mechanic and driller to change his mind? Was it mounting pressure from BP? Was it the lack of communication or a direct order from his company? Or was it the authorization to proceed from the regulatory agency's approval to proceed?

Answer that question andprimary party responsibility seems to land squarely. However, that is not to say the balance of participants are to be exonerated. Guilt doesn't wash off as well as oil.

From the perspective of communication alone, Transocean seems to have the most to lose. It's clearly the most defensive, sometimes flailing about. There must be a reason. Sometimes those actions are the sign of inexperienced communicators or crisis counsel. Other times, it's merely an admission that the company hasn't been observing its vision for the better part of two years.

We'll pick up on our crisis communication evaluation next Tuesday. Mostly, we're just thrilled the real priority, plugging the leak, seems to be working. In the interim, consider some other worthwhile perspectives.

• Geoff Livingston pinpoints where BP communication becomes muddled. It's an excellent point-by-point resource primer.

• Patrick Kinney of Gaffney Bennet Public Relations talks to Lynn Neary about BP's public response to the Gulf oil spill. Kinney worked for Ogilvy Public Relations when it helped BP rebrand itself as "Beyond Petroleum."

• Chris Maloney pens one post that pinpoints what BP seems to be doing right since taking full responsibility for the spill. His writeup is a bit more tempered than those who gave BP a B on crisis communication. (A "B," really? Not in my class.)

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Thursday, May 27

Communicating Zip: Why Halliburton Is Quiet

When you visit the Halliburton Web site, one of the world’s largest providers of products and services to the energy industry, business continues as usual.

The board declared a 2010 second quarter dividend of nine cents ($0.09) a share on the company’s common stock, the Gulf of Mexico remains "one of the world's most prolific producing areas," the company was busy presenting at the 2010 UBS Global Oil and Gas Conference, and the deep water drilling section of the site concludes "our experience speaks for itself."

Mostly, with exception to the prepared statement (one release away from being bumped off the home page) that was delivered by Tim Probert, president, Global Business Lines and chief Health, Safety and Environmental officer, Halliburton, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico already reads like a memory rather than a current event. It's not.

The Halliburton Connection To The Spill.

Halliburton connection to the crisis is that it was responsible for sealing the well. The casing to seal the well was installed several days before the explosion. (CNN provides one of the better investigation time lines for April 20, if you are interested.)

What makes the casing significant is most accounts point to gas leaking through the casing just hours before the explosion. This seems to be supported by BP briefs as rig workers tried to close valves on the blowout preventer at least twice.

However, there are four points to consider related to the casing. Only one point falls squarely on Halliburton.

1. BP's decision to install a single barrier option made the best economic case.
2. There are some contentions that the Halliburton work was taking longer than usual and possibly improperly constructed .
3. BP seems to have made a decision to perform some tasks related to the last plug in reverse order, something that would require MMS approval.
4. BP officials had made a decision to run only six of 21 tests to ensure the drill pipe was properly centered; an uneven drill pipe could have contributed to the instability of the installation.

The Halliburton Postion And Communication Strategy.

The Halliburton position is that it was following Transocean’s orders (as dictated by BP) and is "contractually bound to comply with the well owner’s instructions on all matters relating to the performance of all work-related activities." It has simultaneously defended its work while also claiming it is premature and irresponsible to speculate on any specific causal issues.

In terms of ongoing communication, other than saying it is cooperating with investigations and releasing its investigation statement, the company is silent. While Halliburton is providing some intervention support to help secure the damaged well and planning and services associated with drilling relief well operations, details are absent.

Public relations professionals and crisis communicators generally hate this communication approach. The reality is that such little communication from Halliburton is indicative of a subcontractor role. Crisis communicators don't generally teach it, but subcontractors generally attempt to position themselves as subordinates.

The benefit for the subcontractor is limited responsibility for the communication. The benefit for the contractor is greater message control. In this case, Halliburton has mostly used its communication to send a message to BP and Transocean. That message is clear: it's your show unless you try to toss us under the bus.

Halliburton Communication Overview.

• Of the three companies, Halliburton is in the best possible position to escape the bulk of the backlash. It seems to know it, because even if the investigation shows its work may be the primary cause, the primary cause on its own did not result in a disaster. Several decisions leading up to and after the installation seem to have led to significant lapses in safety.

• The subcontractor communication strategy — based on the observation that the general public is not the customer — is becoming an arcane practice. While subcontractors have been traditionally exempt from the most rules of communication, the general public has become increasingly critical of subcontractors since the advent of social media.

• There are still weaknesses in Halliburton's communication. Given prior public exposure, the public is beginning to remember its name as a controversial and untrustworthy corporate citizen. Further, the excuse, "just following orders," seems as thin as medical personnel who relied on it during another crisis we covered two years ago.

• The most challenging concept for communicators to grasp is that the greatest threat to Halliburton is not tied to public pressure. It is only tied to how future contractors perceive their communication and cooperation during the crisis.

Since the company's survival rate is mostly based on how contractors view their cooperation, it seems likely that this company will once again survive controversy while employing a situational communication strategy that most communicators would not recommend. What could it do better?

Even for a subcontractor remaining mostly silent, Halliburton could have shored up communication on four fronts. Among them: communicating policies to ensure safe working conditions despite contractor "orders," avoiding any speculation in the testimony as opposed to what can only be called selective speculation, providing BP updates to roll on their site despite their own silence, and better communicating its role in cleanup efforts as a BP partner in being part of the solution.

In 2009, Halliburton’s total cash and in-kind donations amounted to $572 million. It would only make sense to earmark some of these funds toward a cleanup effort the company is at least partly responsible for.

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