Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Crisis (mis)management...

"Rough waters are truer tests of leadership. In calm water every ship has a good captain." — Swedish proverb

Since the horrific explosion, fire, collapse and massive leak at the site of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon well on April 20, the "it can't get any worse" situation has been getting worse - by the minute.

The oil continues to seep, spew and drift with the currents. What was once a Louisiana problem has now moved far enough east to become a Florida problem, and the fear is that the spread could loop around the southern end of the state and be transported to the north along the Eastern Seaboard.

While BP and the federal government struggle to contain and control the leaks (there are at least three at the site), the American public continues to lose confidence in the manner in which the White House is managing the crises at-hand. The president is even losing the confidence of some of his biggest Democratic supporters in Congress. (As some have suggested, this isn't the president's "Katrina," it's his Iran hostage crisis.)

The reason: President Barack Obama (and his team) have failed to own the situation. Instead, it's the other way around.

"Any one can hold the helm when the sea is calm." —Publilius Syrus.

A presidential briefing...

The basic rules of crisis management are pretty straight-forward: you've got to understand and manage the "issues" at hand. That means assessment and any immediate/urgently needed response(s); regular and reliable communication; short- and long-term vision/planning; action; and remediation. So far, the country's leadership - the president, the Interior Department, the Minerals Management Service, etc. - have done precious little in any of these areas. Of course, there is probably a great deal of work going on "behind the scenes, " but these efforts are not being communicated, which engenders more frustration, anger and mistrust (and undermines confidence all the way around).

Deepwater Horizon - April 20 (we're now nearing mid-June and things seem to be worsening)...

The early problems are now exacerbated with a number of revelations showing that the administration sat on its hands; made other, less-important matters a priority; and essentially hid the truth (or even misled the public). Some examples:
  • From a report in "Three days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dutch government offered to help. It was willing to provide ships outfitted with oil-skimming booms, and it proposed a plan for building sand barriers to protect sensitive marshlands. The response from the Obama administration and BP, which are coordinating the cleanup: “The embassy got a nice letter from the administration that said, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' said Geert Visser, consul general for the Netherlands in Houston. Now, almost seven weeks later, as the oil spewing from the battered well spreads across the Gulf and soils pristine beaches and coastline, BP and our government have reconsidered."
"90 percent of a crisis response is communications" – Barbara Reynolds, Center for Disease Control

And still it leaks...
  • The White House constantly attacks BP (and Big Oil) but the truth is “BP was a founding member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a lobby dedicated to passing a cap-and-trade bill. As the nation’s largest producer of natural gas, BP saw many ways to profit from climate legislation, notably by persuading Congress to provide subsidies to coal-fired power plants that switched to gas," according to a piece by Timothy Carney in the Washington Examiner. He continues: "Lobbying records also show BP lobbying on Obama’s stimulus bill and Bush’s Wall Street bailout. You can guess the oil giant wasn’t in league with the Cato Institute or Ron Paul on those. BP has more Democratic lobbyists than Republicans. It employs the Podesta Group, co-founded by John Podesta, Obama’s transition director and confidant. Other BP troops on K Street include Michael Berman, a former top aide to Vice President Walter Mondale; Steven Champlin, former executive director of the House Democratic Caucus; and Matthew LaRocco, who worked in Bill Clinton’s Interior Department and whose father was a Democratic congressman.”

"Leadership, like swimming, cannot be learned by reading about it."- Henry Mintzberg, McGill University School of Management, The Nature of Managerial Work, Harper & Row, 1973

President Barack Obama - down by the seaside...
  • As noted in a new article in Rolling Stone magazine (via Hot Air), "The administration knew the spill could be far worse than its “best estimate” acknowledged. That same day, the president’s Flow Rate Technical Group – a team of scientists charged with establishing the gusher’s output – announced a new estimate of 12,000 to 25,000 barrels, based on calculations from video of the plume. In fact, according to interviews with team members and scientists familiar with its work, that figure represents the plume group’s minimum estimate. The upper range was not included in their report because scientists analyzing the flow were unable to reach a consensus on how bad it could be. “The upper bound from the plume group, if it had come out, is very high,” says Timothy Crone, a marine geophysicist at Columbia University who has consulted with the government’s team. “That’s why they had resistance internally. We’re talking 100,000 barrels a day.”

"The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It's got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can't blow a weak trumpet." Theodore Hesburgh, President, Nortre Dame University, Time, May 1987

BP chief Tony Hayward...

According to that same Rolling Stone article, the president didn't exactly get things moving on the crisis, despite the knowledge that the spill was a worst-case situation.
  • "The president himself was occupied elsewhere. After returning from his vacation, Obama spent Monday, April 26th palling around with Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, congratulating them on their World Series victory. He later took time to chat with the president of Honduras. When he put in a call to Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, it was to talk about tornadoes that had caused damage in that state, with only a brief mention of the oil spill. On Tuesday the 27th, Obama visited a wind-turbine plant in Iowa. Wednesday the 28th, he toured a biofuels refinery in Missouri and talked up financial reform in Quincy, Illinois. He didn’t mention the oil spill or the Gulf. That evening, administration officials received news that – to judge from their subsequent response – scared the shit out of them. 'The following is not public,' a confidential NOAA advisory stressed. 'Two additional release points were found today in the tangled riser. If the riser pipe deteriorates further, the flow could become unchecked, resulting in a release volume an order of magnitude higher than previously thought. There is no official change in the volume released but the [Coast Guard] is no longer stating that the release rate is 1,000 barrels a day. Instead they are saying that they are preparing for a worst-case release and bringing all assets to bear.' After he was briefed that evening, Obama told his deputies to contact the Pentagon. The following day, Napolitano declared the BP disaster, which was now approaching the size of Puerto Rico, an 'Oil Spill of National Significance' – the designation required to draw on regional resources and to appoint an incident commander to coordinate a federal response. It had taken a full week after Deepwater Horizon exploded for the government to become fully engaged – a critical lapse that allowed the crisis to spiral out of control."
There you have it: what is supposed to pass for crisis management is actually mis-management at the highest levels. A clear vision has not been conveyed to the public; a true assessment has never truly been made and/or shared; priorities are askew; and politics - not problem-solving - are the order of the day.

God help the Gulf.

God help us all.

"The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority." -

Kenneth Blanchard, University of Massachusetts, Schatz, Managing By Influence, (Prentice-Hall, 1986)

Still looking to take names almost two months later...

LATE ADD: This is not how you manage communications in a crisis...

No comments: