In late May of this year, about a month after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Lt. Ryan White, a public affairs officer with the Coast Guard, took command of the online content for the Unified Command Web site, www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com—the official destination for information concerning the spill. [Editor’s note: The site has now being transitioned to www.restorethegulf.gov.] “I was excited to help in any way I could, and this job was a natural fit for me,” says White. PR News asked White about the experience, the biggest challenges and some lessons learned.
PR News: As the creative services unit leader, what were your specific responsibilities?
Ryan White: I managed all of the online content of the site. All press releases, media advisories and availabilities were routed through the division. I also oversaw the social media team, which engaged the public through social media tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. I worked with some great individuals to achieve our overarching goal: to provide the maximum amount of information to the public with minimal delay.
For you personally, and the team as a whole, what were the biggest challenges of the job?
White: I was at the Unified Area Command for 32 days. During that time, I had three or four days off. But I had to make sure my people had some time off. The days were fairly long, ranging from 14-16 hours. Each day was draining, but we came back the next day energized to do what we could to assist in the response. I tried my best to act as a shield, absorbing some of the stresses, so my people wouldn't have to. While I was at the Unified Area Command for a little over a month, some of my people had been mobilized for two months. It was important to keep them healthy and avoid burn out.
That is the personnel side of the challenges with this job. From a public affairs standpoint, I found managing the information flow to be the most challenging part of the job. There was a constant flow of data from individual joint information centers at the incident command posts. We had to make sure good, useable information made it to the public. From catching small typos to ensuring a press release did not contradict a previous release, the work never stopped.
Did you ever wrestle with a decision about content—what to post and what not to post?
White: There was a vetting process for our releases. Most material was generated in the field or at the Incident Command Post joint information centers. Some material was generated by agencies in the federal government. Some material was generated by BP. Independent of the source, the material for release was reviewed by my unit and my superiors. Some information that could be used by the public but was not necessarily appropriate in the form of a press release was posted directly on the Deepwater Horizon Response Web site. My concern was ensuring information made it to the public, whether it was in the form of a press release or a posted document on a Web site; that was our responsibility, and we took it very seriously.
What kept you up at night about this job?
White: At one point the site was receiving around 3.8 million hits a day. That number really makes you stop and think about the quality of the product you're putting out. Invariably I would let a typo through, or have to update a media availability with a new time. I tried to minimize this. At night, when I returned to my hotel room, I was generally exhausted. I did dream now and then, or wake up in the middle of the night thinking of ways to streamline the process for releases, so it literally did keep me up at night. The Incident Command Posts relied on the creative services unit to push their information out to the public. If I was the cause of any kind of slowdown in that process, I took it personally.
What was your interaction with BP? Were they responsive from a communications standpoint?
White: I found the individuals from BP at the Unified Area Command, within our external affairs unit, to be very professional and concerned about the overall oil spill response. When I had questions involving BP, they were available to answer them.
What were some of the challenges with the social media aspect? How much staff was dedicated to it?
White: At one point in time I had seven people working on social media. We engaged the public on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube. It was a dynamic process, as we continued to improve our application of hashtags and the timeliness of featured stories and Facebook posts. While the traditional media picked up our press releases, the public's feedback was not always immediate. The public's reaction, however, to a post or a tweet was immediate. Monitoring social media enabled us to gage general concerns and engage the public regarding those concerns. In some ways our approach to social media, especially through Facebook, allowed the public to interact with each other, often creating long—sometimes heated—discussion threads. We were able to monitor social media trends to predict what stories the traditional media might pick up and cover.
Utilizing social media as a tool to inform the public is just another weapon in the arsenal. A release of information through social media channels is only half the battle; you must monitor and continue to engage. It's a process that takes time and energy, and I do not believe we would have been as successful as we were without the hard work of our dedicated, multi-agency social media team.
PR pundits are constantly being asked about "lessons learned from the BP crisis." From a public affairs standpoint, what were some lessons that you learned while on the job?
White: In an extended response, remember your people. When your public affairs professionals start to fall out, you won't be able to complete whatever task you've set out to complete. Keep them healthy and alert. If you have people working for you, shield them from some of the typical unpleasantness that comes with an extended response. Always remember you are the conduit for information, whether it's setting up interviews, writing press releases or providing material; you are the window to the response for the public. Ensure your public gets accurate information, and make sure that information is timely. It’s a contract with the public. One mistake can erode the trust we earn; the trust that can make us effective communicators, especially during a national incident. Each response will have its own set of lessons; it's each person's responsibility to learn what they can and move forward, better for it.