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Ink Spill: Inside the Battle to Shape the News Coverage of Last Year's Oil Gusher

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One year ago on Friday, the runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was capped, ending one of the longest-running and most popular reality news shows in American history. At the time I was the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and one of a small group of people who led the Obama administration's communications response to the unfolding disaster.

Our job was to overcome the ghastly image of gushing oil from the spillcam that ran all day long, everyday; to make sure the story of the courageous and effective responders in the Gulf was being told; and to protect the president from a distorted and inaccurate impression forming about his administration's efforts. We knew that the public's perception of a disaster response would never earn Obama re-election, but it could prevent it. Our counterparts at BP faced a similar challenge, but chose to take a decidedly different course than we did, and got a decidedly different -- and worse -- outcome.

For 85 days, the spill was a viewership blockbuster. Overall coverage of the spill dominated the news and captivated the country. A study done by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the story accounted for 22% of the total news in the 14 weeks following the initial explosion. The networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS, devoted 29% of their evening newscasts to the spill, and CNN dedicated an astonishing 42% of its airtime to the story. And according to the Pew Report, "If the mainstream media gave the Gulf spill a large amount of attention over an unusually long time span, the public, if anything, was even more fascinated." They found that the public interest in the spill equaled the levels of attention "to some of the grimmest moments of the recent economic crisis and exceeding the interest at the most pivotal moments of the health care debate."

Now, there is no question that the Obama administration's top priority was mitigating the human, economic, and environmental consequences of the spill. It's why the largest response to a national incident was ever mounted -- more than 7,000 vessels and 40,000 people fighting the oil on the water and cleaning up what reached the shoreline. The president was bold and innovative, extracting $20 billion from BP, ordering an independent claims procedure and launching a long-term recovery process before the well was even capped.

But if we didn't adequately communicate those efforts, it would have heaped insult onto injury to the people in the Gulf whose livelihoods were at stake, and who deserved to know their government was on their side.

The saga began on the night of April 20, when an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. I received several emails from the head of public affairs at the Coast Guard, which is part of DHS, containing images of the blaze and information they were releasing to the press on their efforts to find eleven missing rig workers. In the morning, Secretary Napolitano called me down to her office. "The Coast Guard is throwing every resource it can at the search and rescue and if oil is leaking from that rig we need to be ready," she said. "On top of that, we are required to do a joint investigation with Interior on what caused the explosion. I just spoke to Secretary Salazar. Call over to his press team and get moving."

I called over to Interior, and to the White House. We already had inquiries from reporters covering the explosion and we discussed our response on a conference call. Two days later, the rig sank and the situation worsened. The president called for an Oval Office meeting with members of the Cabinet and senior White House officials. The White House issued a readout of the meeting saying the, "President asked the responding departments to devote every resource needed to respond to this incident."

In the days that followed, a twice-a-day conference call was convened with press staff from the White House, Coast Guard and DHS, EPA, and the Departments of Interior and Commerce, which houses the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to discuss media inquiries, questions of media access and overall press strategy. We called them our "Senior Communicators Calls". Within a few weeks, these calls grew to include the Department of Defense, because there were active National Guard troops responding to the spill, the Small Business Administration, and the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

Down in the Gulf Coast, the Coast Guard immediately set up an operational command post and a joint information center (JIC) that would serve as the center of gravity for local press outlets and later, national media who showed up to cover the story. Staffed primarily by young Coast Guard officers, they worked around the clock to track down information, both for the reporters who called and for us, who could then feed it to national outlets covering the story from Washington.

A complicated statute passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez incident designed to ensure that taxpayers weren't left footing the bill for a private sector spill mandated that the so-called "responsible party" pay for the cleanup costs, but also that it coordinate response activities with the local and federal government responders. Down in the JIC, this coordination was interpreted to include the dissemination of public information. Daily press briefings started with the lead Coast Guard official in the region, Admiral Mary Landry, and Doug Suttles, a BP senior executive sent to the area. He was smooth and professional, and had a way of deftly deferring all questions in to briefings to Admiral Landry and then slinking out of camera shot. In DC we referred to him as Nick Naylor, the slick tobacco lobbyist from the movie, Thank You for Smoking.

These joint briefings made us nervous for weeks. On one hand, this was BP's mess and the public deserved to see their face. On the other, the briefings didn't help our efforts to distinguish for the country who, between BP and the government, was responsible for what parts of the response.

On April 28, eight days after the explosion and a few days after the realization that oil was leaking from the collapsed riser pipe, an additional leak was discovered and NOAA began to believe the rate of leaking oil was much higher than the initial, preliminary estimates of 1,000 barrels a day. The next day, at the White House press briefing, Secretary Napolitano declared it a Spill of National Significance. She was joined by a slew of senior officials, including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Carol Browner, the President's Energy Adviser.

Even though press briefings had been going on in the region for a week, this was the first time the matter was addressed to reporters in the White House press corps. They almost seemed shocked to be receiving the news that there was a spill in the Gulf. Referencing the large cast of officials at the podium, a New York Times reporter asked the question to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs none of us wanted to hear, "Is there a reason why this... didn't happen earlier? Why haven't we seen this kind of geared up earlier?"

From a communications perspective, the last thing the administration needed, or deserved based on our actions, was a narrative in the media to emerge that we were slow to respond. The memories of Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact in the very same region and the Bush administration's bungling response were a festering, open wound, both in the Gulf and in politically-charged Washington.

Gibbs was ready:

I've read many of the stories in your paper. I think you've got reporters that have covered, as I mentioned, the daily media briefings that have generally happened at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. All of the members that are standing behind me represent departments that have been keeping the President up to date for as long as this has been an incident that we've been watching. The President spent quite a bit of time a week ago getting fully updated on what's going on.

Despite Gibbs' insistence, and his ability to cite the readout from the April 22 meeting in the Oval, much of the reporting the next day included variations of that theme: an administration slow off the mark. The seeds of a potentially devastating narrative had been planted.

Over the month of May, a series of critics emerged, mainly Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. Both became regulars on television, with the portly and passionate Nungesser emerging as the embodiment of frustration and anger in the region. Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, was a mainstay for a period calling for the military to take over, and Democratic political consultant, CNN analyst and Louisiana resident James Carville made a series of swaggering, hyperbolic accusations that were replayed over and over on what seemed like an endless cable loop.

We continued doing the things we had started in those first days: dispatching Cabinet officials to the region; disseminating a daily fact sheet with updates on relevant metrics like the amount of boom deployed, the number of vessels responding, and the number of wildlife cleaned; and our daily coordination calls across the administration. We developed good working relationships with the handful of science and environmental reporters the major outlets assigned to the story. Gibbs was masterful at the podium, digesting enormous amounts of technical information and dueling with the political reporters at the White House. In early June, I moved over to the White House to work with him more closely and to more efficiently coordinate our press strategy across the administration. Every Saturday I gave Gibbs a weekly plan showing how we could make news every day as we battled to be less reactive in the torrent of coverage.

Yet, the oil kept gushing. And the spillcam kept rolling. The criticism grew louder and another troubling narrative emerged: was BP in charge, or the federal government?

We were able to alter the trajectory of that narrative substantially when Gibbs ordered an end to the joint daily briefings with BP in the Gulf. We concluded that Admiral Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander, would need to begin daily press briefings and become the face and authority figure of the response. Admiral Allen tirelessly fulfilled those duties. BP, for their part, never re-established regular press briefings, relying instead on a massive television advertising campaign and the episodic, and often disastrous, interviews by CEO Tony Hayward.

On June 14, however, the tide broke over us when the New York Times ran a front page story with the headline, "Efforts to Repel Oil Spill Are Described as Chaotic." The article unleashed a surge of follow up stories and nonstop coverage as other outlets raced to keep up with the Times frame. The narrative was now firmly and possibly irrevocably established: the administration got off to a slow start and as a result, the response was failing. The Katrina comparisons accelerated.

A CNN poll from mid-June showed only 41% of the public expressing approval of the president's handling of the spill in the Gulf, and 59% disapproving.

We knew the response to be much better organized and more skillfully executed than the coverage suggested. We decided to double down on our efforts to show the response. We relaxed safety zones and aggressively embedded reporters into every aspect of the response. The Coast Guard moved a cutter dedicated for media 45 miles off shore where the bulk of on-water response was taking place. They shuttled reporters on helicopters out to the cutter. Some stayed the night. Television reporters filed stories and did live shots remotely on the cutter. We even instructed wildlife cleaning stations to open their operations to reporters around the clock, rather than the prescribed -- and limited -- windows they were previously offering.

Our strategy started to pay off. The coverage began to change, especially the pictures on television. Reporters began to see more clearly that the response wasn't chaotic -- the spill itself was. The spill was massive, moving in every direction and threatening the coasts of four states. The coordination on the water and on the shore was organized and proportional to the size of the unprecedented challenge it was marshaled to confront.

Additionally, our weekly press strategy became sharper and more disciplined in making news every day. More and more, the media were chasing us, rather than the other way around.

By August, shortly after the well was capped, the president's approval of his handling of the spill had reversed. A Wall St. Journal/NBC poll found that 50% of Americans approved of his job performance on the spill, and only 38% disapproved. His net approval had gone from negative 18 to plus 12.

BP's public image did not experience a similar comeback in the wake of the well being capped. According to an AP poll from early August, only 33% of respondents approved of the way BP was handling the oil spill, while 66% disapproved. Tony Hayward was forced to resign his post as CEO, ending a 28-year career with the oil giant. The company lost tens of billions of dollars in market value they still haven't recovered a year later. It must be concluded that their near total reliance on paid advertising instead of aggressive direct engagement with the media was a total failure. They missed countless opportunities to defend themselves or contrast themselves with the government. Instead of participating in the reality show, they showed commercials during it -- commercials that Americans appear to have discounted. At one time, staying largely silent in the face of unrelenting negative media exposure may have been a winning strategy, but it is unequivocally a losing one in today's nonstop global news cycle.

The story of the response, of course, is still being told. The post mortem report from the independent presidential commission and in-depth investigative reporting from outlets like The New Yorker have given the response high marks. It's also clear that far less environmental damage occurred than feared, especially when compared to the doomsday scenarios rampant in the media and on the Internet. The spillcam, which BP made public only after the White House intervened, was the visual through-line of a media drama that fascinated and frightened the country for an entire summer, and enveloped many of us in its gravitational-like pull. One year ago Friday, like even the best reality shows do, it inevitably blinked off. Some were still on the island, and others were not.

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