I recently spoke at a two-day all-hazard crisis incident response seminar in Berkeley, Calif., titled, “Thriving in the First 96 Hours.” Among other activities, I took part in a leadership panel to field questions about crisis communications. This post, and others, is adapted from my short responses to questions on the topic asked before and during that panel discussion.
What in your experience has been the most difficult instance of communicating a strategic message to the public or political appointees? How did you handle this situation?
Here’s a thought experiment I used to conduct with friends: You wake up to find that, somehow, you’ve been committed to (the Hollywood image) of an insane asylum. You have no connection to the outside world. The only tool you have to convince your keepers that you don’t belong there is your ability to communicate rational thought.
Every single time we worked through this, I was convinced that the more you reasoned with the keepers in that situation, the more they’d be convinced that you really did belong in the institution. After a tour of duty at the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill response as a public information officer in 2010, I no longer needed to conduct that thought experiment — I lived it.
Not with the people I worked with inside the incident response organization (they were top-notch), but with the people I dealt with on a daily basis in the “outside world.” The local news media, and the thousands of national and international media members who had parachuted-in to Southeast Louisiana, had gone feral. Local and state elected officials had turned into caricatures of the “Louisiana Politician” (oh, the stories I could tell).
Together, these two groups formed a mob that desperately sought to include the affected public in their machinations. Citizens of the impacted region were so confused and upset by all the conflicting reports from official and non-official sources that they were often willing to believe fabricated “bad” news instead of verified, factual “good” news.
My team and I took the only approach we could — promoting transparency. By the time I left Louisiana, we’d made this disaster response operation more transparent than any other I’ve worked in the last 2+ decades. By doing so, we slowly, but surely, started convincing people that they should probably believe the truth, instead of opinions and outright lies about what was going on with the spill response management.
Here are the tactics we employed to promote transparency:
- Media embarks/embeds: We conducted more than any other case I’ve ever worked. More than Hurricane Katrina, more than 9/11, more than all of them (which is saying something). We took dozens of media members with us on the water, in the air and on the ground every day to see for themselves how the oil spill was being mitigated. We had detailed ground rules and enforced them. We gave the media as much access as we possibly could, from filling military cargo planes for overflights of the source offshore to renting airboats to transport them from bayou to bayou to witness work and containment efforts first-hand.
- Community open houses: We coordinated a plan and executed it to get incident response leadership and subject matter experts face-to-face with the public in every parish (i.e., county) affected by the spill in a roughly three-week time span. The geography of Southeast Louisiana and the demands of leadership/SME schedules made this tough, but essential to mission accomplishment.
- Incident command post tours: Aside from the thousands of field workers that worked for our command post in Houma, La., there was a facility staff of about 1200 people working in command, finance, logistics, operations and planning, and every job that fell under those broad categories. We established a regular schedule of guided tours of the facility for the media, and some regional stakeholders.
- Access opportunities for citizen reporters and fringe reporters: The concept of citizen reporter was fairly new in 2010. In some small communities in the state, these were people who were influential in getting the word out. I felt that, space available, these folks should get the same opportunities as the mainstream media with tours, embarks and embeds. I felt the same way about non-traditional media – bloggers, documentarians, etc. My job was to get the facts disseminated, not judge someone merely by the credential they handed me when asking for access (although, full disclosure: everyone went through an accreditation process. Safety and security first!).
Here, again, is the common thread between all these public information activities: transparency of information.
Our operation was running more smoothly than any other of that scale had in the past (irregardless of media muckraking and politician buffoonery), so why not tell people everything? The logistical difficulties and staffing challenges with limited resources we had to overcome was worth it to inject some truth into the public discussion of the incident management operation. Small victories as we tried to push a landslide back uphill.