Monday, October 19, 2009

The Nine C's of Crisis Communications - Part Two

By Thomas Murrell MBA, CSP International Business Speaker

Oil has been leaking from the West Atlas drill site in the Timor Sea since August 21. The leak is technically difficult to stop and may take up to six weeks to cap because back up crews are required from Singapore or Indonesia.

In this delayed ongoing leaky state, the issue has turned into a PR battle between industry and environmentalists.

The story slowly subsided from public view, until the Greens in a PR masterstroke, hired a plane and professional camera crew and flew over the affected area.

They know the oil industry hasn't got the best reputation in the eyes of the public and this is a once in a generation opportunity to highlight the potential environmental risks associated with any natural resource development.

Their aim is to link the spill in the public's eye with the recently approved A$43billion dollar Gorgon development and the even bigger proposed Browse Basin development in the West Kimberley.

West Australian Greens senator Rachel Siewert went all out with this seven second sound bite ideal for today's hyper-short news cycle, "literally, from horizon to horizon, you see the oil on the surface," she told a frenzied media.

Politicians, both at a Federal and State level, are of course keen to de-link the oil spill issue and distance it as much as possible from any future oil and gas developments.

In the media it is all about language.

The company that owns the rig, PTTEP Australasia, part of Thailand's only publicly listed oil exploration company, acted swiftly and activated its emergency management procedures.

It has downplayed the extent of the spill and has used words like incident and event in its communications.

The Greens on the other hand like to call it a crisis and disaster.

There's also debate over what information is accurate. The Greens claim 3000 barrels of oil a day are leaking into the environment while Government scientists estimate it s 400 barrels a day.

Then there's the size of the spill. The Greens estimate the slick at least 90 nautical miles long. Meanwhile, PTTEP estimate it to be an area of 8 nautical miles long and 30 meters wide and showing no signs of expanding. Based on a briefing by authorities, Senator Penny Wong told the senate it measures 70 nautical miles by 20 nautical miles.

This is all happening while the world remembers one of the world's worst oil spills.

Exxon placed a full page advertisement 10 days after the Alaskan incident of March 24, 1989, stating the company's regret but failing to accept responsibility.

Exxon then publicly squabbled with the State of Alaska and the US Coast Guard over delays in the clean-up effort.

Again, the company was seen to be trying to shift the blame.

It appeared aggressive and uncooperative.

It was apparent Exxon had no crisis plan prepared and had not taken the possibility of such a spill seriously.

So what should you do in a crisis like an oil spill?

Here are the Nine C's of crisis communications, and the second three.

4. Communicate

Make it quick, active, honest and sympathetic. Do it often, at least daily with a big incident.

Put customers, community and public interest first and company interest last.

Disclose, do not cover up.

Be Visible, do not hide.

5. Calm confidence

Be proactive, not reactive.

Be rational, not emotional.

Express human concern, not material concern.

6. Be Concise

Controlled media access, not uncontrolled media access.

Avoid phrases like "We don't know what is happening and don't care" and "We don't care and are not doing anything about it"

Instead use the following language: "We know what is happening" and "We are solving the problem".

Use an action taken response rather than a cause/blame response.

Media training key spokespeople is essential. The final three of the nine will be in the next edition in Part Three.

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