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Case Study: Oil Spill Response for Aramco Services Company

Since 2005, Pam McConathy and her team has assisted the Public Affairs Department of Aramco Services Company (ASC) — a wholly owned subsidiary of Saudi Aramco — plan, coordinate, staff and implement communications activities for the company's Oil Spill Response Team (OSRT) exercise. The annual OSRT training exercise typically involves up to 100 individuals, including company employees from the planning, logistics, operations, environmental, legal, medical and public affairs areas of the organization, contractors, community officials and representatives from several agencies.

An ASC oil spill response exercise involves "players" with the company's shipping subsidiary, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, NOAA, the FBI, and U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Department and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The location of the exercise rotates between the four U.S. Coast Guard zones in which shipping vessels regularly operate, bringing crude oil from Saudi Arabia to the United States. Typically, the sites include Galveston, Tex.; Corpus Christi, Tex.; Beaumont/Port Arthur, Tex.; Houma, Lou. and Morgan City, Lou.

Audience

The audience targeted for the Public Affairs component of the OSRT exercise includes primarily individuals, business owners and communities that could potentially be impacted by an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Secondary audiences include the general public and officials located in communities along the Gulf of Mexico, as well as general media serving these communities and the energy industry, energy trade media, environmental groups, ASC/Saudi Aramco employees and partners, and Houston (headquarters of ASC) media and the general public.

Goals and Objectives of Each Exercise (Simulated):

  • Establish a Joint Information Center of communications operations and on-site press room;
  • Provide and train "facilitators" who play reporters and the public, and simulate calls into the press room;
  • Implement effective and consistent message distribution to key audiences;
  • Demonstrate teamwork;
  • Ensure all ASC Public Affairs employees present at exercise observe and participate in drill communications activities;
  • Log all calls from simulated members of the media and community and respond consistently, accurately and in a timely manner to questions and inquiries;
  • Draft all press releases and media alerts, shepherd approvals with key ASC executives and joint command partners;
  • Simulate distribution of all news releases, fact sheets, media alerts to targeted and current media contact data base, as well as on-site team and facilitators;
  • Brief and provide talking points for ASC spokespersons and other agency spokespersons before press conferences as necessary;
  • Organize and publicize any press conferences.

Solution Overview

Several planning meetings are held with the client team to review the OSRT Schedule of Events; the OSRT crisis communications workbook/plan; company objectives, goals, structure and flow of prior OSRT exercises; prior examples of OSRT press releases and other press materials; resource analysis and allocation; roles and responsibilities; and budget and scheduling. Prior drill scenarios and timelines may also be used as benchmarks for recommendations and plans for each exercise.

In any crisis response exercise, there are many unknowns since each crisis scenario is kept secret in order to be as realistic as possible. The primary recommendation to our ASC team is to prepare as much as possible, drawing on prior exercises for basic strategy and tactics, yet anticipate surprises and uncertainties. Team members are advised to be flexible and accommodating throughout the drill.

Implementation and Challenges

We assist the ASC team review and update its OSRT crisis communication workbook annually, which functions as its crisis communications plan. We also supplement the plan with relevant and current background information and materials, archived electronically in preparation for the exercise. This way, the team has it readily available for use in response to calls from the media and the public, and for distribution to the media as necessary.

Our background data includes contact information for local government officials, a list of facilities suitable for potential town-hall meetings, appropriate environmental Web sites, information on chemical dispersants that typically would be applied in an oil spill, and safety and security information. Selected background information is developed into fact sheets and used in press kits. Press kits also include backgrounders on the company, shipping statistics, executive bios and photos, video B-roll of shipping fleet, etc. We also gather current information on all environmental agencies in the region, protected areas and flora and fauna along the Texas Gulf Coast, local government and community Web sites, etc.

We also prepare electronic news release and media alert templates, typical questions and answers for use at press conferences, and pre-approved general statements and talking points for executives, along with pre-approved boilerplates and descriptive phrases about the company and its shipping partner. We also maintain a comprehensive media contact database for use during exercises that includes all possible media outlets for oil spills along the Texas Gulf Coast.

An additional component of our involvement with ASC is to assist with employee communications strategy, messaging and implementation as necessary.

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