Refining NZ pipeline rupture – lessons, observations and affirmations

Pipeline damage image 2

Widely held as one of the toughest PR gigs in 2017, the September rupture of Refining New Zealand’s 170km pipeline linking Auckland with its refinery at Marsden Point in Northland threw up some superb affirmations, lessons and observations about crisis and incident communication.

We at Due North were fortunate to be in the thick of it. On that September afternoon, as engineers in the refinery’s control room started hitting the kill switches to halt the flow of hydrocarbons through the pipe, we got the call on which we had based any number of Refining NZ training and readiness scenarios over previous years:

“Drop everything and get in here. There’s been a leak and the RAP’s been shut down”.

As most of New Zealand now knows, a considerable proportion of the North Island’s fuel supply flows down the RAP, or Refinery to Auckland Pipeline. A rupture was the worst possible news, both environmentally and logistically.

The job is not to win arguments but to correct misinformation where it appears, and to provide information where it is asked for.

I’m not going to tell the story (links here and here for international readers). Everyone in New Zealand lived it for those two weeks in September and knows it intimately. But I feel enough time has now passed to review the lessons and affirmations of the incident from a communication perspective; from the point of view of a communication team at the sharp end of an event which dominated national headlines for well over two weeks.

1.      No such thing as too many hands to the pump

When something goes bang on a national scale you’re going to be deluged with demands for information from every angle. The ability to scale up your communication team at very short notice is paramount. Better to press the go button for the full team earlier than to bring them in too late. If the incident turns out to be not as serious as you initially thought you can always stand some people down.

2.      Think about fatigue

Incident fatigue is a well-known phenomenon catered for not only by CIMS procedures, but also by experienced incident communication teams. One of the benefits to any organisation of having a larger and capable incident communication resource at its disposal is that the communication lead and supporting team members can be rotated in and out of position.

3.      An incident is a fast-moving thing and the communication requirements change daily

Don’t forget that your expanded, scaled up team should include some thinkers as well as the do-ers. Turning to tennis for an analogy, while you’re hard up against the net returning volleys it’s helpful to have someone thinking about the next set.

4.      Divide and conquer… the deluge of requests for information

Seven out of every ten requests for information from media is about repetitive, low-level stuff that can be answered or dealt with quickly and easily. Yet these are the requests that, if not responded to, will generate the most critical commentary. Have a dedicated team member intercept all incoming email and calls and direct the low-level stuff to a colleague who is fully briefed and able to respond quickly to these queries as they arrive.

5.      Sit together

Absorption by osmosis is an underestimated yet hugely powerful tool in effective teamworked incident communication. What you overhear can provide superb context or, equally, prevent a mistake from occurring.

6.      Delegate and enable

Members of the communication team should be empowered to make non-critical decisions. When minor and inconsequential decisions have to be referred to senior executives it adds significantly to workload and delay.

7.      Have a plan and stick to it (or… don’t shoot from the hip)

Identify your daily communication priorities and your target media outlets, plan your messaging – and stick to it. But don’t forget #3!

8.      Start the day early

“Get up before the children” is a well-known piece of advice for new parents. An early morning planning regime, starting at around 0630, helps make the situation more manageable by giving the team time to plan and brainstorm activities and priorities for the day, ensuring that they are in place and ready for action.

9.      Consistency is King

Such is the demand for information during an incident, and from so many sources, that the only effective way to deal with it is to ensure that all stakeholders are given all information at the same time. A regular update for all stakeholders, delivered simultaneously across all communication channels and platforms consistently at specific times of day, is a good way to deal with long-running events where progress is slow or incremental. For fast-moving incidents which develop in a random or haphazard way, or where it’s important to deliver updates in an almost real-time way, social media can be very useful.

10.   A picture really is worth 1,000 words

Clear photographic evidence of damage, or the cause of damage, helps to reinforce messaging and eliminate speculation. If possible, have a photographer and videographer on site during the incident or the recovery process. This allows you to make footage and images available to media as soon as it comes to hand, defusing much of the demand for information and content.

11.   Take time to prepare for media interviews

Particularly live interviews and even more particularly live interviews which are likely to be aggressive or challenging in some way.

12.   Be Human… but not too Human

A basic piece of advice we deliver during our media training is: show your humanity; say what your mother would expect you to say. Calm, confident competence is what people will be looking for. But take that too far and you’ll come across as flippant.

13.   Use PR support in interviews and briefings

A casual “oh, it went fine” response to a communication manager’s enquiry about an interview can overlook a multitude of pitfalls. By having the communication manager in the room mistakes can be corrected, new lines of questioning picked up and acted on, and commitments monitored and added to the team’s action plan.

14.   Manage the incident site with media in mind

Unauthorised images of the incident site will make their way into media early in the piece unless the incident site is strictly controlled and a no-photography rule is made clear to first responders and emergency teams. Controlling the imagery is not about cynical manipulation of the story. It’s about preventing the spread of misinformation, or unnecessary grief and heartache for the families of any victims.

At one point during the RAP rupture an image was taken of a jet of water at the repair weld. This was part of the repair process but we had to spend a morning fighting off and correcting reports that ‘jet fuel’ was being allowed to ‘leak’ into the repair pit, where workers were operating welding torches.

15.   Early decisions around incident site access will defuse media pressure

Allow media access to the incident site as soon as practical. Work out early in the piece when this is likely to be and communicate that to media. This will defuse media pressure from journalists under pressure from their own managers to secure footage of the site.

16.   Social media is key

The organisation’s social media presence has a crucial role to play in acting as a ‘source of truth’ and ensuring that the company’s information can get into the public domain without errors, distortions and agendas introduced by mainstream media middlemen.

While the incident is unfolding is no time to be setting up and establishing such a presence.

The tone of social media engagement during an incident is crucial. Sincere, concerned and responsive elicits the most favourable responses. Flippant, curt or argumentative will alienate rather than influence.

Ignore the outrageously provocative and emotional contributions. The collective consciousness of the rational middle-ground will deal most effectively with those. The job is not to win arguments but to correct misinformation where it appears, and to provide information where it is asked for. This is the way an organisation will win friends, rally support and influence people during a time of trouble.

17.   Plan, Prepare, Exercise

This one’s self-evident. As the wonderful old maxim goes, fail to prepare and you prepare to fail. Make sure your organisation’s regular incident training includes a strong media element so that the operational team is aware of the impact that this dynamic will have on a real-life event.

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