The Accidental PIO: 6 Things a Pipeline Crisis Communicator Learned about Initial Response

Terri sharing her stories of Michigan peril with a group of industry communicators … “So there I was, knee deep in hand grenade pins with Marshall’s mayor over my left shoulder, the pipeline manager over my right, gripping a holding statement in both hands as the EPA stumbles into the room muttering “who the hell are you, lady?””

Note: Brandon and I are amped to introduce readers to another savvy contributor to The Crisis Communicator blog. Terri Larson is one of the only industry-side crisis comms ninjas I’ve met who’s actually logged time as an “Initial” Public Information Officer for a major spill response and did so as the Incident Command System gods intended, supporting the entire operation and not just that of the responsible party. As rare as it is for a corporate communications person to assume the Initial PIO role during a spill, it’s even more rare for that person to retain those responsibilities as the initial response organization begins to transition into a formal unified command. We’ve been working with Terri since 2014 and we like her, a lot. She has the temperament of someone who’s “been in the suck”, and therefore she gets it … and by “it”, I mean she not only understands crisis communication but she understands the value of a systematic approach to organizing public information activities when things hit the proverbial fan … and by “things” I mean poop and by “poop” I mean shit. Lucky for us, she’s agreed to share some of the lessons-learned from a perspective we don’t always see as government-side OG’s. – Paul

I was an initial response PIO in a Type 1 incident before I actually knew what either was or – to be honest – that either even existed.

On July 26, 2010, I worked for Enbridge and was leading a crisis media training session in Fort Atkinson, Wis. The pipeline maintenance crew left midway through the training. Someone whispered to me at the time: “If the PLM’s leaving, that’s not a good sign.” I continued the training with those remaining until I got the call: there was oil in a creek in Michigan and there’s concern it may get into the Kalamazoo river. The creek and river were past flood stage because of a significant rain storm.

I was the closest public affairs team member, even though I was actually based in Houston. I got the call at 11:40 a.m. (I remember because there was only 20 minutes left in the training, which was scheduled to wrap at noon), finished the training and was on the road shortly after 12 p.m. CST. At 7 p.m. EST, I pulled into the PLM shop in Marshall, Mich. It was my first trip to Michigan – ever. Oil was now in the Kalamazoo River.

By that time, a team member in Houston had written and issued a news release. He was also feeding messaging that had been developed while I was driving. Another colleague from Superior, Wis., was en route to provide support.

I met with our operations manager first; he handed me a stack of business cards about 1-inch thick. I requested an overflight so I could wrap my head around what we were dealing with, and was in the air about 15 minutes later along with an operations team member and one of two EPA Region 5 representatives onsite that first evening.

It was almost dark, but there was enough light that we could see the oil: the rupture site, the creek, river, black water flowing over Ceresco Dam. The smell was distinct. It dawned on me later that I should dig out my rescue asthma inhaler, just in case (although I never actually needed it).

Back on the ground and back at the PLM shop, I met as many people as I could to find out what I needed to provide to media: latest details on the response, instructions from U.S. Fish and Wildlife on how to handle oiled wildlife. I briefed reporters, mostly with local, state and regional news outlets, and started prepping for live shots. We secured a hotline number literally at the last minute and I was able to give that number out as I ran from live shot to live shot – it was everyone’s top story.

I remember one reporter asking me at the end of the interview if Enbridge was taking responsibility for the release, and I remember him being surprised by my response: “Yes, it’s our pipeline and we take responsibility.” That wasn’t approved messaging at the time, but it was the correct response – and our CEO echoed those words when he arrived a couple of hours later.

In all of those first night interviews, I responded for all agencies onsite – almost by default because I was the only communications professional there and because it reflected what I saw in the PLM: everyone gathered around one table working together.

Later that night, my Enbridge public affairs colleague from Superior arrived. She’d been traveling much of the day so I sent her to the hotel to rest and asked her to relieve me at 3 a.m. I knew I was too wired to sleep. She came back at around 2:30 a.m. right after I hung up with a producer at CNN. I was so tired that I couldn’t recall what I told him – seconds after hanging up the phone.

On day 2, the Sheriff and Emergency Management Director made the decision to move the command post to their emergency operations center in Battle Creek. We split up: I went to the EOC as PIO and my colleagues (by then, another had arrived) stayed at the PLM shop so we’d have direct information from operations and could update our messaging and information as real-time as possible.

As soon as we arrived at the EOC, the EM Director asked me to set up a press conference and write some remarks. An Enbridge public affairs contractor was also onsite by then – he and I essentially became attached at the hip as we took over organization of press briefings.

It never occurred to me that I would do any different, until a not-so-thrilled company executive asked me who had authorized the first press conference and subsequent schedule of briefings. On day 3, I became Enbridge’s PIO instead of the incident’s PIO, when the EPA was asked to take lead on the response. That said, I continued coaching local officials on their communications, interactions with media and, in one case, posture and facial expressions during a press conference while standing in the back of a hotel ballroom. Once a team, always a team.

I had been designated a “PIO” on several occasions at Enbridge and had worked through crises previously at Planned Parenthood and in the news media, but “ICS” was a new concept. My takeaways as initial response PIO for a Type 1 incident?

  1. Trust your instincts and do what needs to be done.
  2. Build relationships quickly.
  3. Do everything you can to get information to the people who need it.
  4. You may be the only communications person onsite, at least for a while. Draft some help if possible, but you may be on your own for the first 12-24 hours.
  5. It will be ok. At some point.
  6. Know when it’s time to get some sleep – even if it’s a 20-minute power nap.

I’ve always known that I’m good in a crisis situation, but Marshall taught me that success in these situations is built on the ability to stay calm and react quickly and decisively when the shit hits the fan.

Talk to me, Goose.

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