tl;dr – If there’s a possibility that something your organization is about to do will lead to perceived risks from stakeholders outside the organization, you need to have a risk communication and outreach plan in place before going forward with your operational plan.
Americans used the phrase “the new normalcy” to describe how things had changed in the years after 9/11. Increased security here and there, terror “threat levels” being broadcast via mass media periodically, etc. We don’t use the phrase anymore because the “new normal” from a decade ago is simply “normal” today – for most people. There are still pockets of America coming to grips with high security where no security existed before and the militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies
Text book examples of such pockets are scattered along the shores of the Great Lakes, ranging from the major port of Cleveland to the smaller river and lake towns of Sault Ste Marie, Mich., and Willowick, Ohio. While these towns saw some changes as a result of the “new normal” they weren’t ready embrace all security-related change, as the U.S. Coast Guard found out in 2006.
The Coast Guard wanted to create 34 weapons training areas – essentially firing ranges on water – throughout the five Great Lakes, and “publicized” their plan, for public comment, in the Federal Register Aug. 1, 2006 (p. 3). The plan, which was fine, proposed training boat crews on the use of a new mounted automatic weapon, the M-240B machine gun, a weaponry upgrade (at the time) for the service’s mandated law enforcement and homeland security missions. The training would require temporary restricted zones be established for live-fire training just a few times a year, at most, amongst the 34 areas. The zones were designed with public and crew safety as the number one consideration, in regards to scheduling, location and how the use of the zones would affect (or not affect) the general public and professional mariners.
However, the lack of an outreach component, at the outset, to educate the public and elected officials – on both sides of the Great Lakes’ international border – turned the proposal from a safe, common-sense approach to qualifying law enforcement crews on a new weapon, in the environment for which it was intended, into a perception crisis.
People throughout the Great Lakes region were outraged and, at least initially, the reason was simple: no one told them about the plan. Sure, it was published in the Federal Register, but that wasn’t enough because, really, who reads the Federal Register on a regular basis? (Spoiler alert: very few people [in the general public] read the Federal Register. Sorry Federal Register publishers, that’s just the way it is. C’est comme ça!)
The first true public notification of the plan was when the Detroit Free Press “broke the story” in an innocuous opinion piece. The piece criticized the service’s lack of public engagement, rather than the merits of the training plan itself. The piece also happened to be published Aug. 30 – one day before the 30-day deadline for the public to comment, via the Federal Register, on the plan.
If the Detroit Free Press article was a thimble-full of information for the public from the media, the days and weeks that followed delivered a super-tanker’s worth from local, regional and national sources (just imagine the wildfire that would have started if social media was as big then as it is now). Outrage built, particularly from elected officials, non-governmental organizations and special-interest groups.
People felt blind-sided, and the Coast Guard’s continued lack of meaningful engagement after the story “broke” exacerbated the situation. The service’s communicators had gotten behind the story, and were playing catch-up – and losing.
The Coast Guard extended the 30-day comment period on the Federal Register proposal notice, but it wasn’t enough. The outraged took to the airwaves, print media and the Internet to voice their (mostly negative) opinions about the potential for everything from stray rounds striking innocent boaters to perceived conflicts of regional ferry routes being “in harm’s way” to the hazards of lead pollution from the ammunition that would be used.
Five weeks after the Detroit Free Press story was published – and nine weeks after the initial proposal notification in the Federal Register – the service assembled a team of crisis communications pros at a regional headquarters in Cleveland to finally sort through the myriad public issues and attempt to mitigate the outrage. (Full disclosure: I was a member of that crisis communications team.)
In a nutshell, lack of transparency and lack of proactive engagement were the service’s biggest problems. Already entrenched, the only solution was to “build the boat while treading water,” and hope that it floated. The team had to:
- Identify specific outrage issues, research the facts about each and prepare messages that would communicate perceived risks.
- Identify stakeholder groups and the best methods to communicate with each.
- Identify subject matter experts on every facet of the weapons training area plan, the actual use of the weapons, the specific issues that were enraging the public, and get them ready to speak.
- Execute an engagement plan.
Subject matter experts hit the road in mid-October for a whirlwind tour of nine cities in the Great Lakes region (and, if you’re not keeping track of the timeline of events, this first meaningful engagement was 11 weeks after the first publication of the proposal in the Federal Register). Senior leaders held editorial board-style meetings with media representatives in each city. Open house events, staffed with subject matter experts, were held. Town hall-style public meetings followed each open house. The goals of this three-prong approach, which was repeated in cities from Duluth, Minn., to Rochester, N.Y., and points between: Education and re-building trust and credibility. Specifically:
- The editorial board meetings were geared toward media members who would, most likely, keep covering the story. Their complete understanding of the issue, unfiltered and from senior leadership, was key.
- The open houses were designed to accommodate large groups and give attendees access to the subject matter expert of their choosing to engage in dialogues. Instead of waiting for their turn during a traditionally formatted public meeting, people could go directly to the issue-labeled information booths and get answers from a primary source. There was even a booth with the weapon in question, staffed by an expert. Each event was in the evening, and open to the public for several hours, to accommodate as many schedules as possible.
- The town hall-style meetings, held immediately after each open house, were an “on-the-record” venue option for people who wanted their opinions officially logged with the federal proposal in question.
Before, during and after these meetings, the service’s communicators continued information dissemination via other modes of information sharing: telephone and email communication with the media and public; fact sheet releases; multi-media releases of actual training exercises with the weapon; and, engagement with elected officials.
Was all this enough to turn the tide of opinion in the Coast Guard’s favor? Easy answer: No.
The Coast Guard is still not – as of this writing, more than seven years later – conducting live-fire training exercises with the M-240B machine gun aboard boats and cutters in the Great Lakes. I doubt they’ll ever consider the proposition again, given the outrage they faced (maybe they’ll consider weapons training on the Great Lakes in a few years, when they’re using hover boats with RoboCoasties manning plasma blasters.) Their members work on weapons qualifications for that piece of equipment at a training facility (seriously – watch this video. Is this even close to replicating the operating environment for these people?) more than 250 miles from the nearest Great Lakes shoreline, or using computer simulators. However, keep this in mind — no matter where their training is taking place, the weapon is still employed and ready-for-use on small boats and ships operating on the Great Lakes. (The fact that the debate was mostly against training the weapon on the Great Lakes, not necessarily against having the weapon on the Great Lakes, is a real brain teaser)
The last minute outreach efforts may have prompted some people to change their mind about the plan, but, in the end, too many groups and individuals felt this would militarize the Great Lakes, or it was in violation of international treaty, or was a pollution threat with the use of lead-containing ammunition, or unacceptable because of the other myriad issues.
Public opinion – not careful planning – decided the risk-benefit tradeoffs for the service. The validity of the need for the training is hard for anyone to argue, assuming they agree that members of the service are providing valuable law enforcement and homeland security protection. The validity for training in the environment for which the weapon could be used is even hard to argue, if one could imagine that every risk issue had been resolved.
What are the lessons learned here for other communicators and the leadership of the organizations that they represent? The Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication provide a template for looking at what went wrong:
- Initially, the public and many elected officials felt the Coast Guard ignored them, fueling a perception the service thought “slip it under the radar” was the best way to communicate the proposal.
- The service couldn’t listen to their audience at the beginning because there was no outreach campaign or publicly known instruments to collect feedback about the proposal.
- Comments from the public on the Federal Register and in media reports clearly indicated people did not think the service was honest, frank and open, at least, initially.
- The service collaborated with credible third-party sources only after going into crisis mode, and after those parties were brought up-to-speed enough to offer support.
- The Coast Guard only began to meet the needs of the media when in crisis mode, and this took some time.
- The service’s delayed interaction in meaningful dialogue with the media and public didn’t mean they weren’t speaking with clarity and compassion – it meant they weren’t speaking at all.
- Hindsight too-easily illustrates the service did not plan carefully for risk communication associated with the desired outcome for the proposal.
Are Coast Guard members receiving adequate training to qualify them to use this weapon in the Great Lakes? Of course, but the key word here, probably, is adequate. Did this issue, philosophically, illustrate the militarization of the Great Lakes for some commentators? Maybe, but that’s beside the point when one considers that the Coast Guard enforces the law, it doesn’t write it (and international agreements after-the-fact reiterate that lawmakers on both sides of the border agree with how laws are being enforced ) – but many people were probably suffering from too much mental noise to differentiate between “uphold” and “create” law, putting the service in a bad situation in which they were being questioned about both aspects, unfairly.
Once the Coast Guard starting engaging with the public – the “affected public,” as they viewed themselves – they were doing the right things the right way, but it was too late.
Could an outreach plan – created at the same time as the weapons training plan, and rolled out early – have changed the outcome? We’ll never know. In hindsight, the service had nothing to lose.
Today they train for their Great Lakes security mission in Fort Knox (yes, that Fort Knox.)