Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Friday, May 28, 2010

Plug the Hole

In public relations, they call it “putting out fires.” In the department in which I work, our editors use that phrase all the time. The ringing telephone is the substitute for the clanging claxon, the exclamation point e-mail the substitute for the running script in red under a television broadcast.

Things go wrong. Sometimes it’s the result of a mistake, other times it’s simply a natural catastrophe, like a hurricane. Sometimes it’s murder. It’s not so much that these things happen or who’s at fault, but what we do about them and how we respond to them.

I worked for Exxon at the time of the Valdez oil spill. Exxon was so sensitive about what information got out about the company, just in general, that prospective employees had to sign a non-disclosure statement, vowing that they would never discuss any propriety information about the company, even after they’re no longer employees.

Violating that agreement can bring about a costly lawsuit. Exxon is serious about the old saying, “Loose lips sink oil tankers.” So is the company for which I work now. I cannot mention their name and I am not authorized to speak for them. In order to do that, I would have to attend a series of classes at corporate headquarters and sign a disclosure agreement similar to Exxon’s.

Thank goodness, I work in internal communications. When I get a reporter on the phone, I can blithely tell them I’m the company photographer. It’s the truth, as far as it goes (I'm not about to throw oil on the fire by telling them I'm also a writer but I'm not authorized to talk to them - I don't want to wind up on tomorrow's front pages), and I get rid of them – after a surprised pause – very handily. They’re too surprised to even be annoyed.

“I can take your picture,” I tell them, “but I can’t answer your questions. However, I can give you the cell phone number of the person you need to talk to.”

And I do. It’s company policy to give the reporter access to the informant, plug that hole, as quickly as possible. If you don’t tell them what they want to know when they want to know it, they’ll write in their newspaper article that the company had no comment.

Yikes.

I worked in Exxon’s international oil trading department. I was simply a clerk, so there’s no danger of revealing any proprietary information because I didn’t know anything and don’t remember anything lawsuit-worthy.

I just processed the paperwork. In that process, I often got to speak to the tanker captains. I may have even spoken to Captain Hazelwood. One of the captains told me about the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf and how it was a convenient place for terrorists to sink the tankers.

After the oil spill in Alaska, we employees watched in horror as television news reports showed, night after night, the oil lapping up onto the shore. There were the besmirched seabirds and angry fishing boat captains wanting to know when our company was going to do something.

Or at least, say something. Anything! We pleaded with our department supervisor to tell us what was going on. He said the lawyers had advised the public relations spokespeople to say nothing at all. Silence was golden. The best policy. Lawsuits were in the offing.

Meanwhile, our company was becoming oilier than the ducks on the beaches. Our reputation was sinking. The captain had been drunk and gave command of the tanker over to a junior, less-experienced officer at a critical moment trying to leave the bay. As a result, the tanker went aground (steering an oil tanker isn’t exactly like driving a Pinto or a golf cart).

The media pilloried Exxon for hiring alcoholic sea captains. My grandfather was a merchant seaman and taught at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. And he certainly drank. The Valdez captain drank? That was their charge? So did the crew, no doubt. These were seamen, not Wall Street executives wearing Brooks Brothers suits (I’ve known those types, too, and they can drink and snort any seafarer under the table).

Of course he drank.

Neverthelesss, there was a big mess in Prince William Sound (the Valdez was named for the port town where the refinery was located – the ship has since been renamed and relocated) and no one – least of all Exxon, who was responsible for the accident, was doing anything about it.

John Denver scheduled a rare New Jersey concert in Waterloo Village, mere miles from Exxon’s headquarters at the time in Florham Park. There were a number of Exxon employees and fans of the singer at the concert.

Denver did not spare Exxon. He wrote a song specifically about the oil spill. The employees couldn’t divulge any information about what they knew of the spill. They couldn’t name the company. But they could sing along with John Denver – and they sure did.

Eventually, far too late, Exxon realized that it had failed miserably to put out this public relations fire. They got up to the microphone and they got up to Prince William Sound to clean up the mess. The oil has been cleaned up. To this day, they’re still trying to shake the public relations oil from their feathers. Upon hearing about this latest incident, the first name that comes up on comparison is Exxon.

People have to think a minute to remember the name of the tanker. Geographically-challenged, Americans problem don’t recall the body of water. The captain’s name is hazy in their memories. But they remember “Exxon.”

We fast forward now to Deepwater Horizon – British Petroleum’s (BP) Valdez. This involves a poorly-explained rupture in an oil well below the ocean. BP seems to have taken the early pages right out of Exxon’s hold-your-fire public relations playbook.

Thirty days out, they’re only now trying to do something about plugging the leak. Granted, the leak is not only miles down in the ocean, but a mile below the earth’s crust. Still, you think they could have done something by this point. Couldn’t someone stick their finger in the dike.

And that’s precisely what they’re going to do, apparently. Their top-kill method involves plugging the hole with mud. The public can only shrug its shoulders helplessly and hope BP knows what it’s doing.

We, the public, like we, the (then) Exxon employees, have a lot of questions about why a solution has taken so long that aren’t being answered. We can’t help wondering if strings were pulled to prolong this disaster for ecological political advantage.

We learn now that many oil drilling deals have been called off. Would they have been cancelled had the leaking well been plugged sooner, before the oil could reach the Gulf Coast and even the Gulf Stream?

This incident is now also going to affect my present company, and we’re receiving the same message we got at Exxon – that silence is golden. Say nothing. Don’t even say why we can’t say anything.

I tried to explain to a frustrated co-worker how it bears similarities to the incident at Exxon – an oil spill, letting fires burn, silencing our communications team (that would be us). But he’s young and didn’t buy it or didn’t get the message.

We aren’t at fault in this incident and have no responsibility for the clean-up, certainly. This is BP’s mess, not ours. But we will be suffering the after affects and will have to answer to our customers and the Media if we don’t get the message right.

It’s not looking promising that we will. We’re heading for troubled waters and what I was trying to point out to him was that in this oil spill incident we’re following along the same public relations path as my former employer.

Our corporate public relations adviser pointed out that a storm might disperse the oil and we could be spared any nightmares. Only it’s said that oil and water don’t mix. Oil has a tendency to suppress waves and storms, becalm them. It’s heavy and may not disperse but head right for the beaches.

But as we’re only regional communicators, not corporate leadership, we’re not allowed to question corporate directives on this issue much less defy them, though this oil spill may very well affect our regional business.

Our job, as public relations minions, is to seal our lips and pour oil on troubled waters. We bobbled our heads when our adviser gave us the message points for this upcoming incident. What else could we do?

The lawyers have spoken and have the last word in public relations.

But so okay. That’s what companies do and what company employees have to do. We receive a salary to keep our mouths shut when we’re told to do so. We all know the story and the deal. That’s what it is.

When our government starts acting like a company, though, when the President of the United States acts like the Chief Executive Officer of a company, deciding what questions he will and won’t answer, that’s a problem.

When he and his government withhold information, and delay responses and recovery efforts beyond what would be considered a reasonable time, that creates a public relations hole. We shouldn’t still be seeing oil gushing out of that well.

During Hurricane Katrina, President Bush only delayed his visit a few days and for valid reason. Louisiana was a flood zone and in the middle of a crisis. His early appearance might have made for great media visuals but would have diverted officials from their real task of helping people in the area in order to accommodate him. The only people incommoded by his later appearance was the press.

Obama ultimately placed the responsibility (where it belongs) on British Petroleum. However, there’s been no good explanation for the delay in oil spill fighting tactics. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and where there is silence, there is a lawyer. Or government bureaucrat.

Oh there is certainly the inevitable leaking memo, laying the blame on BP officials for not reacting in a timely manner to the impending crisis, when it looked like this leak could not be contained. The memo sheds no more light on why exactly it occurred. But we know who’s at fault. Sort of.

Now that he’s waited long enough for this oil spill to evolve into a full-blown crisis. Now that the oil has reached the shores of the United States and is heading for the Gulf Stream. Now that we have the pictures of oil-saturated wildlife and grasslands.

Now that all the pieces are in place, Obama and Congress can come to the rescue with legislation. Ta-ta-ta-DAH!!! Here he comes to save the day! They can’t cap the oil well but they can cap and trade the oil companies.  This oil well didn't have a safety cap, incidentally.  That's the cause of the blow-out?  Or that would have been a solution had they been prepared?

It’s this miraculous public relations curtain-raising that raises suspicions and doubts about the timing of this incident and the delay in preventing further damage. Have we anticipated the chessmaster’s moves? Are all his pieces now in place, so that now he’s willing to parry questions from the Media?

Rush Limbaugh has been suspicious and skeptical since Day One and geological experts had to be trotted out (on cue?) to allay those suspicions and accusations and forestall further public inquiry with predictably incomprehensible scientific answers.

Impossible to fix it, at least immediately – it’s a mile below the crust of the earth. Oh yeah? Well they managed to drill the well hole and get the pipes down that far in the first place, didn’t they? Is it that BP didn’t have the ability to do it? Or is it that they weren’t allowed?

Did our government insist on doing “environmental impact studies” before they would permit BP to proceed? Did the government insist on signing off first on whatever solution was found? Did the Liberal politicians need more oil to gush out first in order to fuel their agenda?

When the Liberals were ramming TARP down our throats, they claimed economic Armageddon was looming. We were facing a worldwide economic collapse if we didn’t bail these companies out (!).

Health care reform! People are dying! We’ve got to do something. It was lie; no one was dying from lack of health care insurance. Now they’ve all but signed off on yet another government-encroaching, freedom-sucking financial bill. This is an emergency they said. They’re saving us from evil Wall Street Bankers.

When Conservatives said, “Hold on a minute; we’re not sure about all this. We need to study whether this is really good for the country” the Liberals cried foul. The Conservatives were obstructing progress (darned right).

But when an oil well in the Gulf spews billions of gallons of oil into the ocean, they need to “study the environmental impact” of any solution. Sounds more like they’re studying the political impact to discover what kind of hay they can make of it, how they can blame it on a past administration, and how it can be made to serve their cap-and-trade ambitions.

Sometimes you have to dig a hole before you can plug it.

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