What happens when oil spill responders mix it up with the media?

November 14, 2007

That’s what Tod Lyons, with ACT Environmental, and I wanted to find out. I’m at the Clean Gulf Conference in Tampa and just finished the workshop that Tod and I lead called “Working with the Media in an Emergency Response.” Well, if you want to know how to work with the media effectively, how about asking them? So the four hour workshop was structured with three members of the media present to actively engage with the workshop participants on how they would do their job. We presented a complex oil spill scenario and talked though each phase of the incident to understand what the media would be looking for and how to best respond.

The media were represented by Joey West of Bay9 television in Tampa, John Sepulvado of NPR and WUSF, and Tommy Duncan, representing blog media who blogs in Tampa with www.sticksoffire.com. Also on the panel was Chief Warrant Officer Adam Wine who is the chief spokesperson for the Coast Guard in the Texas region. Adam did a great job of explaining the Joint Information Center and giving some hints as to why the Coast Guard has earned a great reputation for fast, open communication.

It was a lively discussion and I don’t have time to recap all the nuances. But here are a few of my impressions.

It is important not to put all media in the same category or brush them with too broad a brush as I am apt to do. There are major differences, and the differences between NPR as public media without any real concern about pursuing ratings and commercial broadcasters or print who need to work hard to attract the biggest audiences possible was vividly on display. It was fascinating to see on display how broadcasters–public and not–and bloggers would approach the same story in very different ways.

A major point of discussion was about relationships. Is it possible and even a good idea to establish relationships (even friendships) with members of the media if you represent a company or a government agency? Absolutely. That was very clear. It was surprising how much of the discussion came down to discussing the value of building a relationship of trust in advance of any major story. At the same time, the necessary distance and independence was also discussed. It comes down to, as Tod commented, “trust and verify.”

I also found the discussion about how much the public–particularly the younger public–distrusts companies and government very interesting. While there was some discussion about whether this was actually distrust or more a healthy skepticism, it became clear to me that there is a very fine line. When asked if the company provided detailed information about the toxic nature of substances released to the environment would the reporters trust that info, the answer was, only if it was verified by someone else I trust.

Obviously there was a lot more discussed and I think there is general agreement that the task of getting information out to the public to meet the incredible demands of instant information is daunting. But, this kind of session I think is very helpful to understand that we are all just people trying to do the very best job we can. Thanks to all who participated.

OK, Tommy, now let’s see what you have to say about this session.


3 Responses to “What happens when oil spill responders mix it up with the media?”

  1. leehill Says:

    I did not attend Clean Gulf this year but your seminar seems very interesting. I daily review stories on oil spills from a variety of sources and had never really incorporated much thought on the motivation behind the presentation. Thanks for opening my thoughts…

    You might be interested in seeing the variety of posts on the subject at: http://spillcontainment.wordpress.com/

    Lee Hill

  2. […] Investigating the Media Slant on Oil Spills What happens when oil spill responders mix it up with the media? […]

  3. gbaron Says:

    Interesting site and a good resource about oil spills and responses. I’ve added you to my blogroll. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

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