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Disaster Response in the Digital Age

In 2010, any disaster response communications effort that lacks a digital component isn’t built for a world in which Web resources are the most trusted and widely-read media of the day. As ongoing containment and clean-up efforts in the Gulf continue, that’s a fact clearly not lost on the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command.

While appears to have been hastily designed and the navigation leaves something to be desired (understandable shortcomings under the present circumstances), the site provides a template for disaster response in the Digital Age that ought to be emulated by any company or organization that faces an emergency situation of such magnitude in the future.

First of all, one look at the multimedia content available on the site demonstrates an understanding that controlling the images is critical to successful crisis management. The site incorporates a range of visuals, including slideshows of clean-up efforts, diagrams of the spill containment attempts, videos of prevention efforts elsewhere, live streams of press conferences, and links to more images provided by government sites. Notably, the site does not try to hide the damage; instead, it transparently intersperses photos of affected wildlife and oily water with photos of active clean-up efforts.

Second, it’s clear that the inclusion of social media on the Deepwater Horizon Response site is not a last-minute add-on; but rather an integral element. In addition to prominent links to related profiles on major social networks, the home page alone incorporates a Flickr slideshow, embedded YouTube video, and a snapshot of current activity on Facebook. Such dedicated integration encourages active participation among visitors. As such, it’s no coincidence that the Facebook page has 22,000 fans and the YouTube videos have been viewed a total of 1.75 million times – meaning that the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command is sending its message directly to its audience, rather than relying exclusively on reporters and the media filter.

Third, the site provides multiple resources for concerned citizens. From locality-specific contingency plans throughout the Gulf region to an ongoing response timeline and updated maps of the spill zone, the site offers all of the information that audiences are looking for. Additionally, a comprehensive FAQ page answers myriad questions – ranging from “Where can I check the status of a beach?” to “Is my drinking water safe?” to “What sampling is EPA doing along the beaches?”

Fourth, the site provides easy-to-find contact and volunteer information. There are prominent phone numbers and contact details for notifying authorities of wildlife problems, oil on land, technical suggestions, and even damage claims. Those interested in volunteering to assist the clean-up effort can easily find relevant links and phone numbers on the site – and a formal submission process is available to those with suggestions for how to stop, contain, or recover the spilled oil.

Finally, the site incorporates the latest media advisories, news releases, press briefing videos, and interview transcripts – making it easy for journalists and citizens alike to find the latest information from both BP and the government entities involved in the cleanup.

While none of these features are revolutionary in and of themselves, the fact that they are all incorporated in a one-stop clearinghouse of information related to the spill demonstrates an understanding of digital crisis management that is all too rare in the media environment we inhabit today.

The officials behind the Deepwater Horizon Response site have mastered the tricky balance between managing a crisis message and providing opportunities for the public to engage. As such, has secured a place as a prime example of best practices in online disaster communications.

UPDATE: The website is no longer active.

Patrick Kerley is a Senior Digital Strategist at Levick Strategic Communications, the world’s top crisis firm. He is also a contributing author to Bulletproof Blog™ and is on Twitter @pjkerley.

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