Our SMU Communication Studies class began with one goal in mind: to learn about the communication efforts during the B.P. oil spill, and the implications of miscommunication during the worst environmental disaster to hit the US. Over the 10-day class, we visited Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, listening to various accounts and opinions from people involved with and/or in charge of getting the message out to the world. We asked each speaker this question: From a communications standpoint, what would you consider to be the most significant lessons learned from the BP oil spill?
The answers were varied, and sometimes similar, whether from media, PR, nonprofits, government officials or business leaders. Following are some of the key communication lessons learned, according to our speakers:
Lieutenant Sue Kerver, District Eight Public Affairs Officer of US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard served as the vital first-responders from the time of the explosion on April 2010, and throughout the spill. “We went from search and rescue, to environmental protection in a few days, with our small staff in charge of gathering and delivering information up, down and across all lines of government,” said Lt. Kerver. The three New Orleans public information officers were inundated with thousands of calls and emails from government, media, BP officials, and numerous other organizations and citizens. In an effort to inform the public about the status of the spill, they immediately set up a comprehensive website as well as social media sites which allowed for vital two-way communication.
• Be proactive. A crisis communication plan must be in place.
• Training is essential to effectively implement any crisis plan
• Identify key spokespeople
• Build relationships with the media
• Identify your audience and use social media tools effectively
Andrea Taylor and Drew Banta, public information officers for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities. They work to educate and enhance legislation to protect the Gulf coast and wetlands. As part of the office, the Coastal Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation assists the state in creating plans to achieve a sustainable ecosystem on the coast. The commission works with engineers, scientists and ecologists to advise the Governor on coastal activities that would ensure protection and preservation of the coast. Communication becomes important in providing information to the public about coastal programs and scientific findings that affect communities in Louisiana, especially along the coast. The public information officers rely on expert sources, accurate facts and information to maintain the public’s trust.
• Be an expert about the issue on which you’re communicating
• Maintain credibility. Don’t make unrealistic promises.
• Be a step ahead so you don’t become defensive
• Identify your audience and reach them through traditional and nontraditional channels, such as social media.
Mark Schleifstein, environmental issues reporter for the New Orleans Times Picayune. He covered Hurricane Katrina, even as his own home and family suffered tremendous hardship. For years he has written in depth about the environmental impact of industry on the wetlands, the coast and the wildlife in Louisiana. His coverage of the Deep Water Horizon explosion and oil spill is considered among the most balanced and insightful reporting. Schleifstein said that in this atmosphere of a 24/7 news cycle, citizen journalism and social media, the facts get hazy, and can result in costly mistakes and confusion.
• Develop credible sources and take the time to back up your information with multiple sources.
• Be able to use social media tools effectively to reach your audience
• Understand the history and culture surrounding the story.
Dr. Bob Thomas, director of Loyola University’s School of Environmental Communication, understands the complications of trying to communicate in the midst of the BP “oil gusher.” He said that although the spill is catastrophic from an environmental perspective, the government’s moratorium on offshore drilling only added to the anxiety in Louisiana. “The rest of the country doesn’t understand Louisiana’s dependence on oil,” he said, noting a lack of communication on a local and federal level.
“Being irrational got us nowhere. All of a sudden screaming the sky is falling and closing down the oil industry was the wrong way to go,” said Dr. Thomas. “It shut down any ears that were willing to listen along the Gulf coast.”
• Be rational and logical in your communication
• Do your homework.
• Enlist people on the ground who understand the big picture.
Steven Peyronnin, executive director of Restoration for Coastal Louisiana, a nonprofit organization addressing the restoration of the Gulf coast as well as raising awareness for the protection of Louisiana’s fragile wetlands.
“You are the one that people will take their lead from,” said Peyronnin. “It doesn’t diminish your credibility to say I don’t know; it damages your credibility to speculate on things you don’t.”
• Stay true to your message
• Be the calmest voice in the room
• Don’t speak of things you don’t know about
• Think long-term with regard to statements, messages and actions
John Deveney, CEO of Deveney Communications and a fellow PRSA member. He has worked with the Louisiana Office of Tourism to manage public perception of the region after Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill. He has created strategies to raise tourism and travel to the region through successful media campaigns, both in print and online.
“The most important thing in a crisis is you have to maintain control,” said Deveney. “Your reactive strategy and your proactive strategy have to work together.”
• Have a proactive strategy
• Maintain control in a crisis
• Be prepared to act reactively and work with being proactive
Ariella Cohen, investigative reporter for The Lens. This small, independent news company is entirely online and focused on local investigative reporting. Although their reporters covered aspects of the oil spill and its impact on the community, they focused on the local and personal side of the oil spill story. Cohen said the biggest challenge was making sure information was accurate and relatable.
• Be specific as possible
• Don’t be defensive
• Get along with local stakeholders
Anne Milling, founder of Women of the Storm, and WOS members, Nancy Marcignia and Diana Pinkerling. The WOS, a nonprofit group which formed after Hurricane Katrina, lobbies locally and in Washington to raise awareness about issues impacting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
“You have to have a focused message. We try to hone in on the message and what are we trying to accomplish,” said Milling.
“There needs to be better disaster response for there to be better disaster communication — not just messages from nonprofits. If the local, state and federal governments are not coordinated in their response to a disaster then communication comes out fragmented just like the response does,” said Marcignia.
• Cultivate ideas and form a network
• Build relationships one contact at a time
• Be persistent in articulating your goals
• Be positive and patient
Sally Sleeper, Director of Research for RAND Gulf States Policy Institute. This nonprofit organization aims to improve policy and decision-making regarding the environment through research and analysis. They provide objective analysis of various issues such as coastal protection, health care and workforce development to federal, state and local leaders. Although the effects of the spill might not be known for years, RAND continually works to collect the most accurate data regarding the oil’s effect on the environment.
• The oil spill was psychologically more impactful because of the unknowns.
• You must combat the uncertainty of a crisis with the most accurate information possible.
Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. This nonprofit organization aims to empower people to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf Region for future generations. It focuses on providing a steady stream of current information, either through the use of newsletters, flyers or other print media.
“It takes a disaster sometimes to motivate people. Once motivated, you can actually engage the American public with important information,” said Sarthou. “You have to be current. The only way to catch the public’s attention is to ensure that the information you provide is not stale.”
• Disasters bring attention to a situation and motivate people to help.
• Engage people with concise, current information.
• Have an “elevator pitch” ready for your organization’s message and goals.
Brentin Mock, with Gulf Restoration Program of Ocean Conservancy. The nonprofit group aims to protect the world’s oceans. This specific program was developed in response to the oil spill. The group also focuses on enabling fishermen and other groups to engage in the damage assessment process so the federal and state restoration plans can be better tailored to their specific needs.
• Make sure sources are credible and correct
• Check backgrounds of scientists and staff
• Know where you’re pulling your information from
• Focus on people telling the story
• Revisit stories and double check facts
• Identify your audience and use social media tools effectively
Kurt Fromherz, media specialist for Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, focused on communicating up-to-the-minute oil spill information to the media. He set up hundreds of interviews, media tours to the barrier islands and press conferences during the oil spill. Nungesser’s outspoken approach has garnered much media attention, and it’s Fromherz’s job to manage the many interview requests and media coverage.
• Be prepared to work nonstop behind the scenes to get your client the best media coverage.
• Strategize sound bites and take measures to make sure your client is not misquoted or quoted out of context.
• You have to stay on top of the news, blogs and social media.
Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District and leading wetlands expert. This state agency is run by locally appointed commissioners who work to develop flood protection plans concerning the use of levees. Mr. Curole not only participates actively on the board, but he also actively engages the public by writing informative articles about levees and the wetlands.
“It all boils down to politics and money. Those are two filters that change the message,” said Curole. “Some people are going to turn the story to try to reflect a better message for themselves.”
• Report honest and factual information to the public.
• Remain unbiased and objective.
• Understand the various agendas that might impact the message.
Lori Brannon Carter, communications specialist, former lobbyist at the Louisiana State Capital and an environmental activist. A resident of the coastal city of Ocean Springs, Miss., she served as a “coast watcher” during the spill. “The confusing messages have created a confused public. But down here, up close, we know the oil didn’t just go away,” she said, praising the work of nonprofits and scientists who continue to unravel the short and long-term impact. “It’s a noble effort and an endless cause to step up and be a responsible steward for the environment.”
• Be tireless in pursuit of the facts.
• Don’t accept “official reports” at face value.
Stan Tiner, executive editor, Blake Kaplan, city editor and Geoff Pender, reporter for The Biloxi Sun Herald. This newspaper team won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The Sun Herald team has reported extensively on the impact of the oil spill on the Mississippi coast.
“In the beginning it was a disaster story. Then it became a political story, linked to the issues around Katrina. Several subtexts played out over the months after the spill,” said Tiner. “There was a lot at stake, and lot of people depending on us to get it right. This was a new field, with a range of resources. There were days when we were frustrated with what looked like contradictory information. It’s been a learning curve.”
“It was hard to cover, like Katrina, in that we were living it, and reporting it at the same time,” said Kaplan.
• Be suspicious, weigh information, get it right in order to develop reader confidence
• Double-check information with multiple sources
• Be an advocate for your city and community
• Focus on local coverage. “Our message was: Mississippi matters,” said Tiner.
Johnny Fisher, manager of Lulu’s restaurant. The Gulf Shores restaurant, owned by Lucy Buffett, is a favorite among locals and tourists. Fisher and Lucy rallied to support the region and raise awareness through local concerts and the “One Love, One Ocean” campaign after the oil spill. “This has been a terrible disaster, no doubt. But we’ve got to send a positive message. Adversity provides an opportunity to make things better,” said Fisher. He explained his campaign angle, which emphasized that these are “your beaches,” encouraging parents to bring the family, and even let kids help with the clean-up, in the spirit of volunteerism.
• Be transparent and genuine
• Never turn your back on your neighbors
• Take an optimistic approach
• Control the message by taking proactive measures
Linda Whitlock, president of the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce. Since the oil spill, Linda and her staff have worked to help local businesses wade through the complicated claims process and the devastating financial impacts on the region. “It was shocking how BP dealt with this. They hired cleanup workers from outside, when we have so many out-of-work residents right here. They didn’t ask us how to clean up the beaches that we’ve been maintaining forever. They just barged in and took charge. The place looked like a war zone,” she said. “BP came in and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll restore your beaches and make you whole.’ They have been totally ineffective.” As a result, her Chamber office set up a “War Room” where area leaders gather weekly to organize business and community support. “We’ve become a model for crisis communication and management.”
• Find ways to use adversity to your advantage
• Handle a crisis with faith, optimism and positive energy
• Create focused messages and make sure you’re accurate
Herbert Malone, CEO of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism for 22 years. His department created information campaigns and used Internet and social media in an attempt to reverse erroneous and damaging media coverage that drastically impacted tourism after the oil spill. “We immediately developed a crisis communication plan after the spill, even before we knew how bad it would become,” said Malone. “The media and the bloggers had a sense of urgency about getting information out there, and being first. Fact-checking took a back seat. Sometimes the headlines didn’t match the story,” he said, explaining that misinformation cost the region billions of dollars in tourist revenue. “Our disaster started with the national news reported that oil would hit our beaches within the week. Phones rang off the hook with people canceling reservations. The oil never hit our beaches.”
In addition to traveling to Washington to testify at a Congressional committee on the spill’s impact on tourism, Malone attended non-stop local meetings, working with other community leaders to manage the message. “Our core message focused on three key elements: We’re keeping an eye on the situation, our beaches are not closed, and this is your beach, come support it.” He noted that his office used social media extensively — Facebook, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, which he felt was by far the most effective tool for shooting out quick, two-way messages.
• Be honest with information and messages, even at the risk of casting an unfavorable image
• Learn to use social media in order to deliver and receive messages from the public
• Use credible spokes people and tailor a message that is genuine. “In this day of social media, you can’t deceive the public. You have to earn their trust. That’s what works in the long run.”