Q&A: Insights from authors who've faced challenges like BP's

Dec. 6, 2010
Is BP CEO Bob Dudley's recent charge that there was "a rush to justice" by the media fair criticism?
—Is BP CEO Bob Dudley's recent charge that there was "a rush to justice" by the media fair criticism?

There is plenty of evidence to support Mr. Dudley's point of view. Unfortunately, he and BP are the wrong ones to carry that message.

—Who should carry that message?

It would be nice to see some of the journalism reviews examine this issue critically. At the height of the Macondo frenzy, several senior news columnists commented on the errors and exaggerated news reports. One of those writers or another senior journalist with standing could take on that task.

—Are companies better off saying nothing?
It may be tempting to say nothing when the facts are unclear, the media seems hostile, or there are concerns about liability. But remember, the news will be reported anyway, and silence from the potentially responsible party can send a powerful message of uncaring arrogance. Bad reporting, angry commentators, and politicking will fill the void.—Can you give an example of proactive communications working?

One of our clients faced with uncertainty about whether a spill on their property could impact well water in a neighboring residential community made the difficult decision, with our counsel, to proactively inform the local health board, elected officials, neighbors, and the news media. We helped them work out what they would say to each audience, anticipated questions, and trained half a dozen spokespeople. The communications outreach produced strong support from the local government, editorial praise for the client's citizenship, and good relations with plant neighbors.

—The Exxon Valdez proved to be a public relations (PR) disaster for Exxon, and the Macondo seems to have had the same impact on BP. Has PR ever helped a company after a large oil spill?

One year before the Valdez there was a major spill east of Pittsburgh. The spill shut down the water supply to Pittsburgh in the dead of winter for 3 days. Manufacturing plants were shuttered, and people had to get water from trucks and carry it home in zero-degree temperatures. The company, Ashland Oil, was a client. We had worked with the CEO and his senior staff on crisis response communications. We were called to Pittsburgh early on day one, and we spent a month with the chairman, the president, and their top officers helping them respond quickly and intelligently.

On our first day in Pittsburgh we participated in a joint press conference and then quickly organized our own press conference with just the company and the media. We picked the Pittsburgh Press Club for the venue. The story was front-page news across the nation and led the nightly national television reports, which tracked the slick moving down the Ohio River. It forced the closing of intake pipes all the way to Cincinnati. One hundred reporters journeyed to Pittsburgh to cover the largest freshwater spill in US history. The event produced federal legislation, but the company was spared unreasonable punishment. Good communications does make a difference.

—What do companies need to do to organize for the best possible outcome?

Training people is important, but training needs to build teams that understand what is going to happen in a real world situation and how they can play a positive role. "Off-the-shelf" media training programs do not accomplish that. Naturally, we believe "outsiders," professional communicators with no relation to the incident, can help.

—What is the biggest communications error industry makes in an incident response?
Isolating the joint information center (JIC) from the unified command and the incident commander. Putting the communicators down the hall or in another building and giving them periodic updates is a major handicap. A successful external communications function demands an integrated public information function. While National Incident Management Service (NIMS) guidelines call for such a common operating approach, often there is a preference to separate the functions to prevent premature releases of information. This concern is understandable, but in our opinion it is misguided.—How would you organize the public information office function?

The NIMS guidelines are very instructive. They acknowledge the need for direct, real-time interaction between the communicators and the unified command center. The kind of trust that is needed to achieve that kind of integration can be established during drills. With sophisticated scenarios and exercises, public information offices can demonstrate their value and hone their skills for real-world events.

The authors

John Mullane and Denise Lenci are principals of the Calumet Communications Group (www.calumetcg.com). They have provided counsel to senior managers on a wide range of crisis issues and responded to oil spills of national significance for more than 20 years. Both have news media experience and provide training programs for the energy industry. Lenci is a former director of communications for a Fortune 500 chemical company.

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