My Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill experiences are somewhat different than that of my colleagues. I didn’t get to deploy to Louisiana until October 2010. I never got to stand up a joint information center.
I had just returned to full duty five days before Deepwater Horizon, following 57 days convalescent leave, with a year’s worth of occupational therapy ahead of me. When the spill happened, I wasn’t deployable, but I was employable.
Before my eventual deployment to Louisiana in October, I served in Washington as the Chief of Strategic Communications, National Incident Command (NIC), for the disaster. My job was to not focus on the response as it happened, but to look over the horizon by 90 to 180 days – identifying key issues that would need to be managed and crafting communication strategies with interagency input and buy-in.
It was, singularly, one of the most frustrating and thankless jobs I’ve done in my (at that time) nearly 20 years as a government communicator.
I wrote and coordinated communication strategies for the closure and opening of fisheries, the disposal of cleanup materials, the disposition of recovered oil/oily water, a hurricane response plan, and countless other potential eventualities, that all went to a black hole in the Department of Homeland Security Office of Public Affairs (DHS OPA), and never returned. The singular plan I wrote that went anywhere became part of the bigger hurricane plan as the response rolled through the Gulf hurricane season.
My observations on the successes, foibles and failures of external affairs during Deepwater Horizon are well documented in the Coast Guard’s Incident Specific Preparedness Review, so I’ll not belabor those points here.
Instead, I want to share a bit about what I saw as a nearly year-long siege upon my commitment to ethical government communication and the battle to maintain my professional and personal integrity. Navigating the dynamic political and information environments surrounding the response led to a lot of gut checks and decisions about what were and were not “fall on your sword” moments. I like to believe I made the right choices more often than not.
From my perspective, the [then] administration and DHS staff were almost completely unaware of the differences between the National Contingency Plan (NCP) and a Stafford Act response when Deepwater Horizon happened. In retrospect, I attribute this to the years leading up to Deepwater – years where our nation saw fewer oils spills and fewer spills of significant magnitude, while at the same time seeing an increasing number of natural disasters requiring a whole of government response. As a result, the public, the media and the administration had become accustomed to Stafford Act responses where FEMA leads the way in supporting overwhelmed states and where there is no unified command.
At some early point in the response, the word came from DHS OPA that the proper way to respond to media inquiries about who is in charge of the response is to say the federal government is fully in charge of the response. Sounds comforting, except, that’s not how the NCP was written or how it worked.
In addition to my role as the Chief of Strategic Communications for the NIC, I also (along with several other Public Affairs Officers) handled media inquiries coming to the NIC or via Coast Guard Public Affairs at Headquarters, in Washington.
A journalist from the Washington Post called me asking about the NIC, how the NIC works with the whole of government response and how that aligns with the NCP. We discussed the unified command, and how that works. Then I got the, “So who is in charge?” question. Bridge back to NCP, unified command, and that earned me a, “So the federal government is not in charge of the response?” Tie back again to NCP, unified command, and that earned a, “Is the government making all the decisions?” I responded with the truthful, “That’s not an accurate statement.”
At some point the reporters, who were Coast Guard beat reporters, asked us “Who the hell do you represent?”
That was on a Thursday afternoon. On Saturday morning I get a call saying that because I didn’t deliver the talking point that the federal government was fully in charge, and, that the omission was on full display in the weekend Washington Post, I was no longer authorized to serve as a spokesperson.
Sometimes the truth does not set you free, but you do sleep well.
Whether my sin was forgiven or whether the volume of inquiries necessitated, I was reinstated a short time later.
As part of our engagement strategy to bring journalists up to speed on the first ever implementation of the NIC, we offered a few walkthroughs of the NIC to help them understand the command structure and functions of the NIC. By this point there were roughly 42,000 people in the response. One journalist asked for a copy of the org chart, which we provided, but she decided to not use it in her story. A week or two later, another journalist requested a copy of the org chart but, by that point, all such requests had to go through DHS OPA. The org chart and inquiry were dutifully sent for clearance and DHS OPA replied saying that the org chart was too complicated, we’d be mocked if it were released, and, we should “make up” another one that was cleaner with less lines.
I argued that an org chart for an incident response this big, covering the shoreline of all or parts of five states, is going to look a little messy, but DHS insisted. I told them I wouldn’t “make up” an org chart or provide the media with anything other than a copy of the actual chart. They said that was unacceptable and so I opted to decline to release the chart to the journalist. As fate would have it, that journalist was in the same news organization as the journalist who received the org chart prior to the new clearing/approval process being put in place. He asked her for the chart and used it in his piece.
Yep, got fired for that one too, and I was fine with it – I didn’t make anything up, and didn’t break any rules. Integrity still intact.
Sometime in May, PRSA and Dr. Joe Trahan asked if I could participate in a June panel discussion about external affairs efforts for Deepwater Horizon. In my capacity as Chief of Media Relations for the Coast Guard I routinely shared experiences from responses and this unprecedented response was drawing the attention of so many response communicators, doing a panel with the incomparable Dr. Joe would be a good way to share some insights and best practices.
As the date rolled closer PRSA began advertising the event and used the unfortunate title “Deepwater Horizon: Behind the Scenes.” That got DHS OPA’s attention right quick, who then got my boss’s attention right quick, who told me in no uncertain terms I wasn’t participating in the event. I caved and I regret it to this day, but in the grand scheme of things, that was not a fall on my sword moment, but it was certainly a vivid example of how volatile the working environment had become, and how controlled the release of information had become, even in an academic setting.
There was a significant development in the response in July, and there was a clamor in the media for new numbers. DHS OPA mandated any request for that information had to go to them. We dutifully sent reporters there, even though we had the information and there was no legitimate reason to withhold it.
Reporters came back to us in droves because they couldn’t shake information loose from DHS. I and the LT who worked with me in media at Coast Guard HQ were going rounds with two reporters over the matter. We agreed that the information was straight forward, that we had it, but we couldn’t release it. At some point the reporters, who were Coast Guard beat reporters, asked us “Who the hell do you represent?” When we got off the phones, my LT went down the hall, went to another office outside of public affairs, called the journalist he was working with and gave him the info. Had I already not been called on the carpet several times, I might have done the same thing, but I didn’t. I still think about that moment today. I would have liked to have pushed back, but the matter didn’t seem worth my career, rather, I took the personal hit so I could come back and fight a bigger battle another day.
I was concurrently serving as the Coast Guard’s Chief of Media Relations and the NIC’s PIO when that bigger battle came, as DHS OPA decided it was time to migrate comms from the PIER-based (you remember PIER right?) website to a DRUPAL based website called “Restore the Gulf.” That would have been fine if, in fact, the response was at a point where we were restoring the Gulf – except we weren’t. Oh, and the DRUPAL site that was going to replace the PIER site did not have any of the backend functions that allowed the communicators from local, state and federal agencies to work on documents in the same platform, share talking points, or handle, track and analyze inquiries. But it was a very pretty website.
I went through the Coast Guard chain of command to DHS to communicate the magnitude of this bad decision and the impact it would have on folks working the front lines of the response, and the impact it would have on the government’s ability to effectively communicate about the ongoing response efforts. Those words fell on deaf ears.
An email came down from DHS announcing the imminent end of the use of PIER in the response. I saw all the “who.eop.gov” addressees on the To and CC lines, so I kept my response accordingly respectful and polite, but nonetheless direct. That earned me some more time on the carpet and still had not dissuaded anyone from pulling the plug on PIER.
As I sat at my cubicle, head in hand, my eyes glanced upon a set of orders on my desk – orders that assigned me to the NIC. And then it hit me – I was using my normal chain of command rather than the NIC, to engage OPA. I walked across the hall, briefed the NIC chief of staff and said I believed this was an Admiral Allen-to-DHS Secretary discussion (given that I’d exhausted all other avenues). He agreed and we got a few more weeks to work out a reasonable transition from PIER to the DRUPAL site, and a process for granting access to non-DHS communicators. Finding that way around uninformed opposition burned a few bridges for me, but that was a fall on my sword moment. It was worth drawing the line in the sand because pushing back and changing the outcome allowed us to take care of the communicators downrange, to keep the public informed and it meant that for a few more weeks we could still facilitate the timely release of information.
I went on to New Orleans in October to serve as the PIO for the Unified Area Command/Gulf Coast Incident Management Team as one transitioned to the other, where I continued to draw the ire of DHS OPA. But the command staff in NOLA thought I was doing fine work and that was good enough for me, because that’s who I was there to support.
Unlike many of my peers in the response, I did not earn a personal award for my efforts. I received two, suitable for framing, certificates of appreciation. They mean as much to me as any of the medals I earned in my 29-plus years of active-duty service. They remind me that keeping yourself grounded to the ethical conduct of government communications, even when those senior to you may not, allows you to come through a response like Deepwater, better and stronger than when you went in, and, more importantly, you come out with your integrity intact.
BfrackingZ! Thank you for finding your center of gravity, and keeping it well aligned with the center of buoyancy of the actual situation.
Thank you for sharing your experiences.
Chris, how great to hear from you and read these reflections on that time. Gratified not only how you fought for PIER at that time, but how it was able to earn the respect and loyalty of incredible communicators like you. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you, Chris! Invaluable insights. You’re the consummate professional! Nice shoutout to our beloved colleague and friend Dr. Joe!
Lauri-Ellen Smith, APR
CAT 5 Crisis Communication, Inc.