Deepwater Horizon Lesson Learned: Managing Expectations to Maintain Trust and Credibility

GRAND ISLE, La. – A brown pelican leaves his perch on a string of protective boom placed around Queen Bess Island, Aug. 20, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Erik Swanson.

Today marks 10 years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. One key communication lesson from that seems to have been forgotten. Specifically, the lesson – Never let your leadership say something is under control or make statements that underestimate the impact of a disaster.

No one likes a know-it-all, especially because in disasters the know-it-all is likely wrong and will get people hurt or killed.

When Deepwater Horizon happened, I remember watching an official get on camera and say that it was under control and the strange feeling of my keyboard leaving impressions on my forehead as I beat my head against my desk. After that, when it was clearly not under control I knew we would never really entirely get the narrative back.

This post is not the first time I have thought we should have learned this lesson. The “know-it-all” lesson is one I thought we had learned after the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay, when initial reports were that 140 gallons were spilled, but it ended up being more than 50k gallons that spilled into the bay. There was nothing that could be done after that, communications-wise, to get the public to trust the responders, no matter how well the cleanup might have gone.

I know my team and I learned the lesson. When the collision of the M/T Tintomara collision happened 8 months after the Cosco Busan incident, I was the U.S. Coast Guard Public Affairs Officer in New Orleans. We were briefing the Captain of the Port when we were told how much oil was reported to be in the vessels. What mattered was not how much they said was there, but how much could be there, so I asked for that number. The Captain quickly saw where I was going with the question, and we went over his answers to the public about how much oil was going to hit the river. The answer was “This is what we were told was aboard, but we are responding as though both were entirely full and the capacity is ….” In other words, the worst-case scenario.

We were clear with the public, we were honest and told them that we were responding as though both vessels were full.  Then? We did just that, operationally. We continued to be honest and upfront about what we knew and didn’t know. That simple.

There are few ways of destroying the public trust in your competence and ability to respond like telling them you have something under control before you really understand the scope.  Once you have destroyed that trust it can take a very long time to get it back, if you can at all. (Hint: you can’t. You just look like a fool.)

So what can you do to maintain public confidence while not making promises that will undermine trust? Easy – be honest. Tell people the facts and what you are doing to address the problem. This can sometimes be a tough ask for leadership who sees admitting that they might not know all the answers as a weakness. I don’t advise telling them to put their ego aside and just suck it up (tried that once, didn’t go well), but to show them how leading with what you do know: the facts. Then, follow up with the other tool you have: experience and training. These things can set people’s minds at ease. People need to know responders are taking an issue or incident seriously and that they have the experience and know-how to make things better.

In the world of disaster response you cannot give people absolutes – to do so sets you and your organization up for a serious breach of trust. It also sets you up to not be believed by the public when it matters the most, like when you need them to cooperate with a difficult decision.

Let’s do a practice run. Let’s say you are about to do a briefing on a new illness that has people scared, and you might need to put protocols in place to protect them, but it is too soon to know.

“At this time we are working with CDC and WHO, along with research virologists who have in-depth knowledge on how these sorts of viruses spread. I wish I could tell you more beyond the few facts we have about the virus, but what I can tell you is that we are going to do everything in our power to keep you safe and get through this together. We will be taking the advice of the experts in this field and putting into place every precaution they suggest. Today that starts with ….”

It is a simple formula:

Step 1: Lay out the facts of the incident.

Step 2: Tell people who is responding.

Step 3: Explain that while you don’t know x (how long it will take to close the well, find a vaccine, etc.) that here is what you are doing to mitigate damage in the meantime.

Show them that you are wise enough to admit what you don’t know, that you have brought in the best experts to respond, show them your knowledge from experience and the efforts you are making. Sadly, it seems as we watch the news, 10 years on from Deepwater Horizon, the know-it-alls still want to appear to know-it-all and it is taking us down a path of distrust and fear.

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