I grew up near Vancouver, Canada, and so I’ve been watching the coverage of the recent oil spill in English Bay with great interest. The media and public reaction has been an excellent demonstration of the well-known rule in crisis communication – the reaction to an incident often has very little to do with the incident itself and much more to do with incidental issues that surround it.
Small oil spills happen. It’s an unfortunate fact of shipping. Navigate Response was recently alerted to monitor the media for a significantly larger oil spill in another part of the world which could have become a major story but it didn’t – in fact there was no media or public interest in it whatsoever. Globally, such incidents occur and most of them receive little, if any, attention.
About 2,700L (2 tonnes) of oil were spilled in Vancouver and the vast majority of it was recovered. The Canadian Coast Guard reports that only 6L remain in the water and there was very little reported impact on marine life, and yet, the reaction has been angry and prolific.
Why? Because the reaction isn’t about the incident, it’s about other issues in Vancouver. People are angry that a local Coast Guard station was recently closed, so of course this incident is ‘proof’ that the station shouldn’t have been closed. Would it actually have made any difference? Not according to the Coast Guard, but regardless this incident gave people a soapbox to stand on.
This incident is also being fitted into a larger narrative about unpopular proposals to increase shipments of fossil fuels out of Western Canadian ports. To opponents of these plans this incident is ‘proof’ that shipping oil out of Canada is a bad idea. Mind you, the vessel at the centre of this incident is a bulker picking up a shipment of grain; so what’s the connection you ask? Well they’re both ships and most people can’t really tell the difference between different types. The factual connection is about as tenuous as suggesting that car accidents are proof that we should restrict the number of ice-cream trucks on our roads.
To be clear, I’m not coming down on either side of the contentious issues Vancouverites are wrestling with; they are important issues and whatever decisions are made will likely have significant impacts on Western Canada for decades to come. I’m also not trying to diminish the unfortunate nature of this incident; all oil spills (no matter how large or small) are harmful. Instead, I am pointing out that the reason this incident has received so much attention has little to do with the incident itself.
Every day I set aside some time to read the news, and not just the shipping news, because every issue feeds into other issues. To make sure that I am prepared to respond to the media on behalf of a client in relation to shipping incidents, I have to understand the wider context. As we saw in this case, a small oil spill became a big story because it was a chance to attack government policy and criticise proposed shipping operations.
Never assume your incident will be judged only on its facts – it usually won’t be.
|Dustin Eno is a crisis response manager at Navigate Response, a global crisis communications network for the international shipping industry headquartered at the Baltic Exchange.|