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Lessons Learned: Husky Energy’s Crisis Response

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(Matthew Garand/CBC)

August 16, 2016

Early in my career as a journalist, I spent several years living in Saskatchewan, a beautiful province with an enormous sky. Last month, I was saddened to hear of the large oil spill in the North Saskatchewan River near Maidstone.

A pipeline belonging to Calgary-based Husky Energy leaked about 250,000 litres of heavy oil (blended with diluent, a chemical used to make heavy oil flow more easily) into the river. That’s only two rail cars of oil, but the effects were far-reaching. The spill contaminated the drinking water supply of 70,000 people and created a state of emergency in the City of Prince Albert. The City of North Battleford and the farmers in the area were also left without water. As for the damage to wildlife and the environment, that’s another immeasurable cost.

The company is facing activists, hunger strikes, millions of dollars in claims and possible charges by the government. The first test results from the Water Security Agency indicate the river water is now safe for drinking, but the Province says the water intakes will not be re-opened for a while. The tests also show that the water still exceeds national guidelines for protecting aquatic life. Both the clean-up and the investigation are continuing.

I wasn’t surprised that there had been a pipeline incident. It’s a risky business. What did surprise me was how Husky Energy handled the communications side of its response.

Communications missteps can spoil a good start.

After the spill, Husky Energy appeared to take responsibility for the crisis. It shut down the pipeline indefinitely, said it was “deeply sorry” and started the cleanup. All good first steps.

However, community officials complained about poor communications. They said they only heard about the leak through the media. And speaking of media, the company refused interviews and chose to interact with reporters via e-email. It started to participate in a daily media conference call, but after two days, it withdrew from that as well. While Husky may have been busy with skimmers, berms and booms cleaning up the mess, the public also witnessed a growing silence and lack of transparency.

Don’t ignore the media.

The best guess is that the company withdrew from the media even more due to the controversy over the timeline of the spill. Vice-President of Exploration and Production Services, Al Pate, struggled to answer why clean up crews weren’t on scene until the next day. He admitted he hadn’t seen the incident report and just repeated a weak message about a pending investigation that simply made him sound evasive.

Beware of the flip-flop.

At first, Husky said the spill was discovered at 8pm on July 20 and the government was notified 14 hours later. Then the story changed. The company filed a new report which said it only discovered the spill at 10am on July 21 and notified the government thirty minutes later. The company said it made the change because the first report was based on a miscommunication. A flip-flop like this is never good. It makes people wonder about the truth. And, one of the principles of crisis communications is to tell the truth.

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(CBC)

Don’t be defensive. Be accountable.

After the disastrous press conference, Husky Energy reverted to dealing with the media strictly via e-mail, a strategy which is both defensive and ineffective because it distances you from the public. You appear to be hiding. Husky also appointed a media and issues manager as the company’s sole spokesperson.

During a crisis, people don’t want to hear from the PR people. They want to hear from the leaders, the ones who say “the buck stops here”. They should be visible, front and centre, conducting interviews and responding to questions. Their words, tone and body language should be expressing concern and inspiring calm and confidence. In a situation as serious as this, the expectation would be to see the CEO as the main face of the organization. Ultimately, it’s the CEO’s job to try to sustain a brand’s reputation.

In the early days of the crisis, Husky President and CEO, Asim Ghosh, had displayed a dismissive view of the media when he said he distinguishes between a media reaction and a public reaction. He went on to say this in response to a question about any potential negative public reaction to pipeline spills.

“As far as we are concerned, we just focus on getting on with the job, you know. If we’ve got a pipeline spill, we address the pipeline spill. We ensure we’ve got procedures in place and we ensure we make the procedures even more robust from each learning experience.”

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(Todd Korol / Reuters)

This comment does not exactly exude concern. And showing concern is one of the main principles of damage control. It’s critical to express sincere concern for those affected by a crisis if you want to recover a damaged reputation and re-build trust.

Make sure your company website is crisis ready.

During a crisis, your company’s website is the first point of contact for both the public and journalists. Husky’s website still talks about dividends, quarterly reports and awards. Rather than going to a dark site, Husky Energy chose to have a small dark corner on its homepage. On an appropriately stormy-looking background, you’ll find the words “Husky’s Response”, a reference to an oil spill in Saskatchewan, an invitation to click for more information and a twitter handle. (More on that later.)

A click leads you to almost daily updates. These are factual updates listing the progress of the cleanup, environmental assessments, monitoring, testing and times for claims clinics. There are a few key messages sprinkled here and there. At the top of the page, it says that safety of the public and protection of the environment is the company’s primary focus. There are mentions of commitment to an investigation, willingness to work with authorities, First Nations and affected communities as well as support for the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Saskatchewan. A week into the crisis, there is even one quote from an executive, Chief Operating Officer, Rob Peabody.

“In addition to Husky personnel, we have more than four hundred people on the ground, including experts involved in cleanup operations. We realize this has impacted people, businesses and communities, and have established a toll-free line for claims. A team is standing by to help people through the process.”

This is all fine, but what about the timing? Certainly, regular updates are important, but Husky’s website updates started four days after the oil spill. Why the gap? Another of the principles of damage control is to respond quickly. Long delays give people time to speculate and lay blame. Another problem with waiting too long is that you open the door for others to set the agenda. You don’t want others feeding the media machine. You want to be the one providing information and context.

Social media is a critical tool.

Social media platforms offer a direct pipeline to the public. You can provide timely information updates and you have the opportunity to re-enforce your key messages. But the thing to remember is that social media is just that…social. It’s a conversation, not a soapbox. It’s important to listen, respond and engage. During a crisis, in today’s world, social media is a critical communications tool.

Husky Energy does not have an official Facebook page. Others have created an unofficial page where a discussion is taking place in the review section. People have expressed their anger regarding the spill as well as Husky’s response. The company has even been ridiculed for its poor social media presence.

Although Husky joined Twitter in January 2013, it didn’t send out its first tweet until four days after this oil spill. It has tweeted an average of one to three times per day referring to a toll-free line for claims and an emergency line for anyone encountering “impacted wildlife”. But, mostly, the tweets simply say “Husky continues to respond” with a link to the website updates. There are no key messages, no expressions of concern. And, there is no conversation. Granted, the company has over 240 followers, but there is no real engagement.

If you’re in the business of oil pipelines, a serious spill shouldn’t come as a surprise. Certainly Husky Energy has the protocols and procedures it needs to handle a spill like the one in Saskatchewan. But, logic would dictate that it should also have a solid crisis communications plan to be prepared to communicate effectively with all stakeholders including the media. Poor communications can make a bad situation worse since it’s often not the crisis, but the way it’s handled that leaves the lasting impression. Based on the evidence in this case, Husky Energy has shown a clear lack of preparation.


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Irene Bakaric

Principal

(905) 616-0660
irene@mediaprep.ca