Transparency of Information is Great. So is Transparency of Operations.

This is the final piece this week here on the blog to commemorate ten years since the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig explosion and subsequent devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll also consider reading the insightful pieces from my friends and colleagues Ana Visneski and Chris O’Neil, if you haven’t already. The picture we’ve painted here together isn’t the prettiest, but it is accurate, and I hope you can absorb some of the lessons learned we’ve shared for when you face your next crisis.

Untangling a giant event like Deepwater, and putting it into something focused is not a very easy thing to do. That being said written, I’ll throw in a few caveats here to consider as you read on about the topic I’ve chosen:

  1. I have been working with the media for almost 30 years. I’ve always like working with the media. I understand the value. For anything you read here, remember that *some* media members does not equal *all* media members.
  2. I have worked with thousands of Public Information Officers (include PAOs, corporate comms people, spokespeople, press officers, PR people, etc., etc., as you read this term throughout the piece – I can’t spell this out on every reference) throughout the years. I like working with PIOs. I don’t always agree with all PIOs, and they don’t always agree with me. For anything you read here, remember that *some* PIOs does not equal *all* PIOs.
  3. Some of what I’m writing here is not groundbreaking or new, but sometimes there’s a need to reiterate best practices, because not everyone follows best practices. Follow best practices. Seriously.
  4. Just because you don’t like a thing, doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. For example, some PIOs don’t like social media. You don’t have to *like* social media to agree that it’s an effective tool for communicating important information to some of your publics.
  5. With all the thousands of PIOs and media members I’ve worked with throughout the decades, I always get an – I don’t know – *uneasy* feeling when I see or hear blanket statements like “PIOs are the worst” from reporters or “How do I get rid of the media” from PIOs. I understand that some people have been burnt by one or the other and there’s inflated egos here and there, so … yeah. But also … no. Just no. Stop it. Go have your “Obama Beer Summit,” or whatever, but do it on your time – this is my blog. I hope it works out.
  6. I have thought about two concepts, amongst others, as I prepared to write this: communicating transparency and triaging issues. Believe it or not, I have written about both of those things right here on This Old Blog (that’s why some of that text is a different color).

Ok. That’s a lot of qualifiers, so let’s just get into this.

BLUF: Two key points – get the media out to see your operations as much as possible and, sometimes, re-think the concept of “who is the media and who isn’t the media,” and focus some of your attention on influentials (not VIPs, FWIW) who can inform your publics in a way similar to traditional media.

When I got to Incident Command Post Houma, La., about six weeks into the spill and started managing the Joint Information Center there, I inherited a few problems challenges. It happens. We adapt and overcome. One big problem was a narrative in the media that my unified command was intentionally limiting and/or obstructing reporter access to operations. During the first few days I was on-scene the chorus of voices with this gripe grew, and was joined by elected officials (who were regularly given speaking platforms by local, regional, national and international media) and members of the public. As people are wont to do, they started dreaming up reasons why this access was being “limited,” such as, “they’re hiding something! What are they hiding?!”

Media members aboard a Coast Guard C-144 plane flying over the source. photo by me.

That last part, I had to keep myself from laughing when people said it (and seemed to think it was something legitimate to say). We were in the midst of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, and it was getting worse every second (cue live feed of underwater pipe spewing oil non-stop). It was kind of a “water is wet” thing. Perception is reality ….

Anyway. I had two things going for me when I got to Houma: I was lucky enough to work for an agency that actively promoted transparency of operations, with few exceptions, through media and community relations activities, and I had been with that agency, doing the job, for two decades. I was thinking of increasing media access before I even got on-scene: not because I had heard it was being limited, but because I knew from past incidents that there can always be more. I had already learned the lesson, and it would be reiterated at Deepwater. I also had a professional relationship with two members of the unified command, and knew they would support the plan. So, three things going for me.

Get the Media Out to See Your Operations as Much as Possible

Let’s pick apart the first of my two key points. If you’ve been through Incident Command System PIO training, you’ll be reading some familiar concepts here. Same goes for ICS-based/compatible JIC training.

Not for nothing, this isn’t a lesson learned that you should apply just to incident response: you should be doing this during routine work periods, too.

Before I write about some of the challenges that the ICP Houma JIC faced with this, let me just note a few things.

First, nobody in the PIO world – nobody (fight me!) – works with the media because they just want individual reporters or journalists to have knowledge about issue x or crisis y (beat reporters, trade publication journalists, etc., are a different beast). The media is a means to an end, and that end is informing the public (and, especially the affected public, when we’re talking crises). Reporters and journalists are good at taking in information and turning it into something people can easily digest and understand. If a reporter learns something new that she can use during her next game of Trivial Pursuit, good for her. Not exactly why we do the job, but neat.

Second, as I triaged the many public information issues I was facing upon arrival at Houma, the “they’re limiting our access” false narrative went into the urgent category. Not only was it incorrect (think JIC rumor control, but on all the steroids available on the planet), but it was hindering operations. It was destroying our credibility, which makes it *kind of tough* to do the job. Also, part of a JIC Managers job is taking care of the staff, and when they’re facing unwarranted hostility, problems can occur (morale, focus, etc.). I’ve cared, on a personal level, about the health and well-being of every person that has ever worked with or for me in a JIC. I also need them to function correctly and efficiently in sub-optimal conditions. *shrug emoji*

On to those challenges we faced with getting the media out there:

  1. Safety. It’s always first. Southeast Louisiana in summer presents many hazards, in the best of times. Animals. Heat. You name it. Add-in airboats, small boats, Coast Guard cutters, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, crude oil, extended periods of time in the field, etc., and you have to have a serious plan for both escorts and people that are embedding with your resources.
  2. Speaking of resources: Resources: First up, personnel. The Houma JIC was sharing space with the LOFR staff when I stepped-in. That had to change. The JIC was incredibly understaffed. Thirteen people when I got there, consisting of Coast Guard, BP, EPA and a few contractors. JIC staff were handling media, products and fact gathering: the LOFR staff was handling community relations (not their function). In my notes from Day 2 (for me), I wrote “What the JIC needs at this point: people, better span-of-control, clarity of effort, a defined structure, agility for dynamic situations and (use of) the NRT JIC Model.” Within a few weeks, our JIC was up to about 40 people (the numbers fluctuated almost daily), with satellite JICs further downrange in Grande Isle, Venice and Cocodrie. It still wasn’t enough.
  3. More Resources: Ever been to an incident where there were extra helicopters and planes and boats parked all over the place? Yeah, me neither. We had to make our case to allocate seats, space or entire resources for the public information mission (insert head-desk gif for people who had already been proselytizing for years that public opinion can, in fact, drive operations). We also had to make the case to the finance and logistics that, yes: we do need to hire more resources and operators for the public information mission (airboats!).
  4. Scope: Let me just quote the document entitled “On Scene Coordinator Report Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Submitted to the National Response Team, September 2011” to blow your minds (a lot of people don’t realize this!):
    • “The magnitude of the spill cleanup can be surmised to a certain degree by the number of resources committed, and its impacts. Oil flowed from the well for 87 days. Two drilling ships, numerous oil containment vessels, and a flotilla of support vessels were deployed to control the source of the well, while 835 skimmers and approximately 9000 vessels were involved in the cleanup. On the single most demanding day of the response, over 6000 vessels, 82 helicopters and 20 fixed wind aircraft and over 47,849 personnel/responders were assigned; 88,522 square miles of fisheries were closed; 168 visibly oiled wildlife were collected; 3,795,985 feet of containment boom was deployed; 26 controlled in situ burns were conducted, burning 59,550 barrels of oil; 181 miles of shoreline were heavily to moderately oiled; 68,530 gallons of dispersant were applied and 27,097 barrels of oil were recovered.”
    • ICP Houma didn’t account for all these resources and other numbers, but was the “main operational” ICP of the other four working for Area Command. So, yeah. A lot to cover.
  5. Geography: Here’s what Southeast Louisiana looks like. It’s challenging:

6. Internal Coordination/Support: We had to work with Area Command, other ICPs, Staging Area Managers, Air Ops, Surface Ops, Safety, etc., etc., etc. So many people, but the same kinds of interactions one would expect at much smaller incident response operations. Picture a command post with ~1200 people (that was Houma), thousands more in the field, then all the other incident commands. One thing we did to alleviate some of the strain was to carefully schedule days/times for field events, and make them regular (e.g., flights departing from this location at this time on these days of the week). This map scratches the surface:

7. Egos: As we got a really good daily media embed schedule going, both in the air and on the surface, we still had to fight the weird narrative that was still persisting. Seriously. It came to a head when an angry reporter called the JIC to complain about access being limited. That reporter was on the deck of a response boat observing operations during the call. Me and my shipmate Frenchie just kind of looked at each other with, “How is this person even possible?” As the narrative persisted, we had to pull a few senior people from the JIC to assist our junior folks doing field media escorts, to re-calibrate expectations. Part of that was updated ground rules for the media (the degree to which I had never implemented before, and hope to never implement again), including/but not limited to, “Forget your ‘gotcha’ questions for escorts and crews: we are taking you out to see one of the worst environmental pollution disasters ever. It is bad. We’re all working as hard as we can to fix it, because it is bad. It is one of the worst environmental pollution disasters in U.S. history. You can quote me directly on that.” and “If it’s not *clearly* evident in your reporting or published/broadcasted imagery that you’re conducting news gathering aboard a U.S. Coast Guard asset (the main provider of platforms in the UC), you will clearly state that you conducted your news gathering aboard a U.S. Coast Guard asset, or your news organization will be temporarily banned from boarding U.S. Coast Guard assets for this incident.” Seems harsh to read (because it is), but every single media member agreed to those (and already existing) ground rules. Wasn’t looking for praise or even positive news stories, just neutrality and honesty.

8. ICP Tours: If some all of you just cringed – good! Should PIOs bring media into the ICP? Not usually! We had a HUGE ICP, which should have been part of the story. The media later agreed with this assumption. We had to socialize the idea with the command and general staff, then carefully come up with a detailed plan that got buy-in from everyone. Our “tour guides” checked credentials, ran media members through security for badging (security was so tight at the ICP, that I once witnessed a guard deny access for a certain space to The Commandant of the Coast Guard during a visit – because he didn’t have a facility access badge. True story!), took them to a few designated spaces (which were scrubbed for information security) and let them talk to pre-selected spokespeople. We got more than one “… wow. I had no idea …” responses after the tours.

I could keep going with the challenges, but you get the picture. Adapt and overcome. Think outside the box. Fill out those 213-RRs. Develop relationships. Make strategic and tactical plans and stick to them.

Over the Gulf of Mexico, a reporter from Univision does a stand-up as we fly over the source site of the gulf oil spill in a Coast Guard C-144. photo by me

Re-think the Concept of “Who is the Media and Who isn’t the Media”

My first foray into giving equal access to non-traditional media or, really, at the time, fringe media, came a few years before Deepwater Horizon, at a big oil spill in the Mississippi River in, yep – you guessed it – Louisiana (after which my government security clearance was never called into question, so …). A blogger and a freelance photographer who were both covering the story, for various “publications.” This was fairly unknown territory for this PIO then, in 2008. Basically, my thought process at the time was, “If we have two empty spots on media tours, they can have them – after we credential them the same way we would with any other media member. They’re already reporting on the story, so why not supply them with factual information?”

The deal was fine with them, and included that they wouldn’t ever take a seat away from a traditional media member, and they had to produce links to their work after it was published. More to that story, but it worked, essentially.

Two years later, at Deepwater, I thought of that 2008 case and used a similar method for allowing non-traditional media on flights or boats. People who produced a community newsletter via email, independent documentary filmmakers, a well-known environmental activism organization, etc.

With some of these people, my decision to allow them on media tours was influenced with the thought of operations in mind: did I really want people renting boats or aircraft and possibly interfering with operations (I’ve seen it happen before, at other incidents), when instead I could simply give them a spot on a plane or boat? Also, they wanted to gather information and imagery, and share it with their audiences: why wouldn’t I want them to have a completely transparent look at what was happening? That’s a win, in my book. Lastly, they all noted, in some way or another, “the Coast Guard/Unified Command gave us the access to get this information and imagery.” Another win, no? Think of that old public information adage: “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will – without the benefit of all the facts.”

Again, careful planning is required, but that is also often the case with traditional media.

We conducted other types of media relations ops during Deepwater, of course – this is just one aspect of a much bigger picture. The lessons learned here are simply those two key points: get the media out to see your operations as much as possible and, sometimes, re-think the concept of “who is the media and who isn’t the media.”

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