From the front line: Communications lessons from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

While serving as a spokesperson for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Incident Command, public relations veteran Brian Sibley learned many valuable lessons. The big one? PR is absolutely not dead.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Public relations veteran Brian Sibley is no stranger to a crisis. He's spent the last decade of his career focused on crisis response management for many global corporations, including big oil companies. Even with his pedigree, serving as a spokesperson for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Incident Command post in Mobile, Ala., would prove to be Sibley's greatest challenge yet. It was also an invaluable experience that further proved true the following things: the news media cycle is not dead, there's still no substitute for face-to-face relationships with people, and that social media is not the end-all, be-all in a crisis.

Hired by O'Brien's Response Management, which manages disaster and emergency response for many organizations involved in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Sibley spent about a month at the Mobile command post, which is one of two main incident command posts. This main post in Louisiana covered response operations at the wellhead and the state of Louisiana; the Mobile post covered Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and Mississippi.

The Incident Command System is a Federally mandated temporary organization that is triggered whenever there is a disaster of national significance. The organization's main role is to manage response efforts for that incident, and the members are any organization or government agency that has jurisdiction or responsibility related to the incident. In this case, the main Federal agency involved is the U.S. Coast Guard, and BP is also involved as the responsible party. As a spokesperson for the Incident Command, Sibley was to communicate to the press any information about the response itself, yet not on behalf of any one organization or agency.

"Most of the time the press were interested in operational facts and figures, such as 'how many boats do we have doing skimming?' or ' how many people do we have on the beaches?'" he said. "An operation like this changes constantly and one of the major challenges is making sure that the press have the most current data, because data becomes obsolete very quickly."

Gallery: Scenes from the Incident Command

As a field media liasion, Sibley went anywhere along the coast in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to follow the media so that they could have a direct contact and build a trusted relationship. He spent many of his days on the beaches knocking on the doors of satellite trucks -- "sat row" as it came to be known -- and introducing himself as a resource. Most of the trucks were present from the major networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox, as well as local media from the gulf coast cities.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, those folks were really glad to see me," he said.

Sibley said that the satellite truck residents were almost without exception grateful to see him because they hadn't yet gotten a face, a person they could identify with one-on-one to get information. They wanted someone with whom they could build a relationship and could count on to get what they needed.

"It's hard for me to describe how great the hunger for information is in a situation like this," Sibley said, "The appetite for information is totally insatiable."

Next: The media is not dying»

The information that the press so desperately needed were facts and figures, and because the information changed so quickly it was helpful for them to have a person that they could program into their cell phones, send text messages to or flag down as he would walk by.

In a month, Sibley said, he did well over 100 broadcast media interviews.

"There's a lot of crying about how the media is dying or how there is no news cycle anymore, but this is inherently untrue, especially for an event like this," Sibley said. "There's definitely a news cycle for the broadcast media. They need their information quickly, and by 2 p.m. to feed the 5 p.m. broadcast for the evening news. Evenfor CNN, which is a 24-hour news network, its main stories go out during the 5 p.m. news hour."

Of course, there were social networking pieces for this, but it was all automated. Every press release or piece of information that went out from the Incident Command went out simultaneously to the response web site, the corresponding Facebook page and Twitter feed. The web site was a central hub for all information to satisfy the needs of a variety of different types of audiences. Simultaneous publication was critical for accuracy and information consistency because that information changed so much. From a technology perspective, the backend of all of these updates was managed by Public Information Emergency Response (PIER) Systems. Developed in Bellingham, Wash., by Gerald Baron, the system was created in response to a pipeline disaster in the 1999 in the same town. According to Sibley, Baron, who was part of the incident command for this disaster, decided that the crisis communication process needed to be better handled.

"They had been using Post-It notes for inquiry management!" Sibley said.

Sibley said that Baron developed this software to put all of these elements that need to happen in a crisis into one platform that also gave access to operate an external web site. With the system, any inquiry that comes in it is fully tracked through the PIER System, routed through approvals, and so on. Everything happens online.

"As it has evolved they've added the ability to distribute information in all of these different ways -- SMS, RSS, social networks, etc." Sibley said. "This tool is completely indispensible and it has changed the way that PR is done for these types of incidents."

However, with as much information disseminated via the web and via social networks, and as automated as the PIER System was, this did not alleviate the press' need for a PR contact to get them information even more quickly, along with detailed explanations of the information.

Next: The role of PR»

"Without a PR person at our side I don't think we would have gotten the answers we needed by our deadline," said Kelly Cobiella, correspondent for CBS News. "When I had a question about how many boats were skimming on a given day or who was disposing of the oily waste on the beach, it was much more effective to ask the spokesperson for the joint incident command standing right next to me. He could call a command center and actually get through to someone with answers whereas a lot of times we in the media would be passed from one person to the next."

So, what was the role of social media? There are a lot of articles in some of the marketing, and even mainstream, media about updates via social media, as well as the impact of social media conversations on the image of BP and the state of the clean-up itself.

"I am a proponent of social media and the progression of the practice of PR, but it was important to see how valuable face-to-face interaction still is," Sibley said. "There's so much information that the media -- especially the media invested in doing an accurate job -- needed someone to help them navigate through this massive amount of detail coming out every day, and still changing rapidly. They couldn't just push raw data out to the public because it wasn't useful, but I could sit down with a producer or correspondent and help them filter through it."

Some of the national news networks would get creative with social media. Cobiella said that CBS heavily relied on Twitter for viewer questions.

"We asked viewers what they wanted to know about the spill using Twitter," she said. "It gave us a better idea of what people were talking about in other parts of the country. The biggest challenge was finding answers quickly. Some of the questions were simply too complex to answer in 30 seconds  or less which was our time frame. In those cases, we would try to work them into longer stories."

Sibley said that it was also within his role to help Cobiella answer some of the more intricate viewer questions. One viewer question he recalls more specifically was around the rumor that beach workers were resting more than working.

Gallery: New cap placed at the wellhead. Will it work?

"That kind of question is framed for a bad response, but I was able to clarify that because these workers are out there in high heat conditions with heavy protective gear, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) required that these crews can only work 20 minutes on and then rest, rehydrate and get out of the sun."

There is so much data, Sibley said, that the press didn't always know what was useful and what they should use. One of the ways that he was best able to portray this data was through visualization of his own -- through his iPad 3G.

"Responding to a crisis was made easier for me with the iPad," Sibley said. "Broadcast is all about the visual."

Sibley said that prior to getting his iPad he would have to physically visit the Incident Command post each morning to collect the day's charts, maps, graphs, data tables, etc.

"It was a huge 50-page paper packet," he said. "If I got a question from a reporter, i.e. 'Where is the oil projected to hit today in the state of Florida' I would have to go through my notebook, go through the maps. I was carrying around all of this paper that was out of date by the end of that day."

Sibley said that all of this data was available electronically but because he was out in the field, he had to rely on either being near a Wifi connection or delays in laptop booting and such.

"The iPad was an instant tool that allowed me to look at interactive maps on the Deepwater Horizon response site," he said. "If a reporter wasn't signed up for email distribution, I could immediately sign them up. They didn't have to wait for anything from me, and it made explaining the data much more visual and clear."

Even then, with as well received as he was by his media counterparts, he still had to answer tough questions. While Sibley represented the Incident Command organization and not one entity, he would still have to deal with questions about BP, and those questions around blame or stopping the spill or machinations of steps to try to ensure something of this magnitude would not happen again.

"My job was to represent what we were doing as a response organization," Sibley said. "I would tell those press what we were doing in terms of clean-up and reminded them that we could talk about who is at fault later, but they should focus now on the clean-up."

Putting all ego aside, Sibley describes his role as a critical proof point for the fact that journalists still need PR people, especially in times of breaking news stories. With all of the fast-moving information and the news moving rapidly from state to state, there really was no replacement for a face-to-face relationship between the PR team and the press in order to help reporters quickly pull together factual accounts -- a notion that the national broadcast media supports.

"There is no shortage of stories," Cobiella said. "The biggest challenge is making sure they're accurate and fair."

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