WASHINGTON: The US Coast Guard has created a strategic communications planning team in Washington to prepare for imminent issues as the oil crisis in the Gulf approaches its eighth week.
The Coast Guard is helping coordinate the government response for the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, which includes BP and Transocean as well as federal, state, and local agencies.
While day-to-day crisis communications is being handled by the Unified Command's Joint Information Center (JIC) in Robert, LA, the Coast Guard compiled a team of communicators from various federal agencies in Washington to prepare for long-term issue response.
“We recognized early on that this was going to be a very long response,” said Lt. Commander Chris O'Neil, who has been named chief of strategic communications for the National Incident Command.
The make-up of the planning team includes the National Guard, the State Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Interior, and US Fish and Wildlife Service.
O'Neil said the JIC is handling anywhere from 400 to 1,700 calls a day, the majority of which he says are media inquiries. JIC is also handling media embedding, including overflights and skimming operations, which have topped 700.
Because of the quantity of work the JIC team is handling, the planning team in Washington is tasked with preparing strategy and messaging for issues that are expected to arise.
“We're trying to get ahead of latent issues,” said O'Neil, adding that one of the challenges has been communicating the magnitude of the oil spill.
One example of a “latent” issue is the possibility of a tropical storm or disaster hitting the Gulf Coast. Other potential communications issues could be ongoing questions about flow rates, waste disposal, and the liability trust fund.
Another recent issue has been concern about restricted media access, including the availability of images, which O'Neil said is not accurate.
Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander, issued a memo last week detailing the Coast Guard's media policy, which was also posted to the response website. The communications team has been talking to traditional media, like NPR, as well as bloggers to address the issue.
O'Neil said he sends a daily e-mail at 8:30 am each day that provides information about topics of the day, key messages, and a media analysis as part of the national coordination effort.