Two very different events—the volcanic ash cloud and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—provide an interesting perspective on risk, probability, and how to respond to a crisis. Both events would be categorized as extraordinarily rare events. Volcanoes erupt all the time, but the vast majority of them do not bring air travel to an entire continent to a screeching halt. Oil spills happen, but one at this depth and this magnitude is unprecedented.
A great deal of the criticism leveled in both cases has to do with the fact that many communicators feel that the response seemed too slow and not planned out. A common refrain is that these situations should have been considered and a response should have been mapped out. But how realistic is that?
[Sidebar: Part of the reason that I feel PR was a natural fit for me is that I’ve always been a planner. I spend an inordinate amount of time asking, “…but what if [insert huge disaster/problem/situation here] occurs?” I can further attest that this habit drives my family, co-workers, and bosses alike a little bonkers. To provide a recent example of how this plays out in real life is that when my husband and I recently traveled to England, I had backup plans in place for both pets and work just in case the airspace closed again, stranding us in England. I actually had backups for my backups in the case of the pets.]
So when I say, you can’t plan for everything, I’m being sincere, because where I come from (mentally) is that you should plan for anything and everything. But clearly you can’t.
PR people often complain/lament that they don’t seem to be taken seriously by the C-suite. Businesses analyze risk and balance it out with probability all the time. I’m trying to imagine how it would go over if a communicator from the Civil Aviation Authority had proposed developing a plan to be in place “just in case” volcanic ash happened to drift into the UK’s airspace shutting it down for five days. How much time, personnel, and yes, money do you spend to plan for a disaster that has never happened? How does using personnel for this go over in a tight economy? In hindsight, looking at the geographic location of Iceland’s unpronounceable volcano, its potential for eruption (Iceland is seismically active), and wind currents, yes, disruption due to volcanic ash should have been considered. But if you work for the aviation authority these days, you are probably more likely to crisis-plan for terrorist threats and accidental crashes, not volcanic activity. To complicate matters, in the case of the volcanic ash, not only was the event unexpected, the stakes very high (planeloads of people potentially at risk) and the science and engine manufacturers erred on the side of conservative.
The oil leak appears to have been caused by not one failure, but a string of several failures. This too, in hindsight, seems as though it’d be obvious to think through a chain of events. And again, the stakes are very high. As many have pointed out, we’re looking at billions of dollars potentially lost for the seafood industry. Billions of dollars in cleanup. Miles of ecologically fragile coastline. Tragically, eleven lives lost.
It’s easy for us to criticize responses to these events, but in reality, I doubt even the most seasoned communicators would have planned these scenarios out. There is something for all PR pros and communicators to learn from every crisis and how it is handled. For these two examples, I suppose it is to expect the unexpected. Catastrophic events happen, and you can’t necessarily plan for them. But you can, and should, speak openly and directly about the steps being taken to mitigate the crisis.
It’s that simple and yet that complicated.