27 May 2010

The Fierce Urgency Of We'll Get Back To You

Contrary to my post of earlier this week, I do have a couple of observations on how social media has changed how we handle crises - specifically as they pertain to the oil spill - which conservative estimates now peg at almost double the size of the previous "worst spill" in US history (until they revise upward again).

First, social media gave smart people a platform to contribute and disseminate information, despite the fact that they were not in the inner circle of those dealing with the problem. I'm specifically thinking of the scientists who scoffed at the initial estimates of the rate of flowing oil from the pipe.   While BP has clear incentives to obfuscate or not measure the flow rate, NOAA doesn't.  What started on a small handful of mainstream outlets quickly exploded on blogs and Twitter.  The steady stream of criticism on this issue from both mainstream and online media channels meant that the government could not credibly maintain its "official" estimates.  

That's actually a very big win for transparency, and Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts deserves a lot of credit for this.  Markey and his staff have been tech-savvy for quite a while, and knew exactly how feasible it was to deliver a live video feed from the disaster site. It was a great idea  and it really took some guts to keep pushing for it. From a political perspective, the White House probably didn't need a constant visual reminder of their inability to fix this beamed directly to the world.

Second, social media in a wired country like the US just demonstrates how quickly and efficiently people can consume and process news today.  The news that the "top kill" approach may be working came just a few minutes before the news that the head of the Minerals Management Service had been asked to resign.  It came the day before the President was scheduled to visit the affected area and give a press conference.  It punctuated a month-long soap opera in which the feds in Washington seemed impotent at best.  Now (hopefully) the leak has been plugged before the President can tell us what he plans to do. 


The social media-infused news cycle demands milestones and results.  It demands decisions and actions.  The political entities involved spoke only about process.  Whatever "threats" the government made have been essentially empty (see the whole dispersants issue).  The takeaways I got from the federal government's response: 
  • They showed up at the platform "on day one" - and did what, exactly?
  • They had a lot of boats around which I think set up some buoys and set patches of ocean on fire.
  • They put a bunch of scientists in a room - no word on what ideas they generated, though.
  • They told BP to stop using a particular dispersant but when BP said no they said OK.
  • They continued to give out offshore drilling permits and waivers after the President said they wouldn't.
  • They fired a person who had been on the job for less than a year.
  • The president has shown less emotion on this crisis than Tiger Woods does when he hits a golf ball into a sand trap. Seriously.

Meanwhile, I've heard nothing about what we plan to do about these massive plumes of oil and chemicals meandering under the surface, and there are too many reports of people in Louisiana telling government and company representatives about oil washing up in front of them - and getting nothing more than "we'll get back to you."

Social media tools have the effect of pushing more, faster feedback on to you than you may be ready to handle.   Maybe this is a no-win situation.  It's certainly not a fair criticism of all the actions the feds HAVE taken, especially the amazing folks in the Coast Guard.  But each day they could be estimating how much damage they have prevented.  They know how much "oily water" they've recovered - 11.5 million gallons as of May 27.  How much oil is that?  What does that mean?  That might suggest what they're doing has made a real difference, and that's the story the government hasn't told.

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