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Oil Spills and the Pandemic: Shared Lessons for Risk Communications

We consider and explore parallels from UK pandemic communications and whether these can be transferred to dispersant communications.

  • By Andy Nicoll
  • 9 min read
  • Jan 18, 2022

Oil Spills and the Pandemic: Shared Lessons for Risk Communications

It is striking how many parallels we can draw between the Covid-19 health crisis and an oil spill response. They are both emergency response situations that can have impacts lasting months or years.  In this article, we consider one specific response option, that of dispersant use and explore the parallels and lessons learnt from the communications around the response to the pandemic in the UK and whether these can be transferred to effective dispersant communications. 

Explaining a Technical Problem

Dispersant application is a response option that seeks to increase the rate of natural dispersion and dilution into the water column. Oil is broken down into smaller droplets in the top layer of the waters' surface making them more available to microorganisms in the water column, which can break down (biodegrade) the droplets into their elemental constituents. 

Unlike other response options, dispersant doesn't remove oil from the marine environment. For this reason, it can be challenging to effectively communicate the benefits of the technique.

We have seen this challenge during past responses, such as the Macondo incident in the Gulf of Mexico, in 2010.  Similarly, in the Covid-19 crisis, we saw how difficult it could be for politicians and “experts” to explain the rapidly unfolding situation and potential future outcomes to a population who were frightened, sceptical or both.

Despite proactive steps, those charged with risk communications, whether in the pandemic or oil spill preparedness and response, are vulnerable to “fake news”.  There will always be those who choose to reject the mainstream, scientifically endorsed narrative and favour an alternative explanation, no matter how outrageous or unsubstantiated that view may seem.  Social media allows such views to perpetuate and multiply just like a virus where even the “injection” of independent fact-checking does little to stem the undercurrent of mistrust.   

Communicating Trade-offs

An oil spill and a pandemic both present the situation where something has occurred and the task at hand is to mitigate the consequences as best we can.  There may be several options and choices to make to limit the damage. For oil spills, there is an established process that considers these options and choices objectively based on science rather than by emotion.  

A systematic review of response techniques will also consider and compare the potential benefits and drawbacks. This process is known as Spill Impact Mitigation Assessment (SIMA) in the oil spill response community. SIMA may use objective criteria, receptor vulnerability matrices and spreadsheets to underpin the process and rigour needed to support the selection of the best (or least-worse) response actions. The international oil industry has produced a good-practice guide to implement the SIMA process.

The SIMA discussions often centre around debunking myths and unfounded perceptions. But be it dispersants or vaccines, balancing the detrimental effects to health, the economy, or the environment (perceived or actual) against the overwhelming upside supported by case history evidence or precise, unambiguous science is necessary. 

Governments and scientists worldwide undoubtedly used a similar approach to reinforce Covid-19 response actions (e.g. social distancing, use of face-masks, hand-hygiene, vaccination, lockdown) However, all these controls have a range of benefits and drawbacks. Each requires a rationale for prioritisation to deliver the best overall outcome for the population.

In another interesting correlation, dispersants and Covid -19 vaccines come in multiple blends and from a range of international manufacturers in both cases. An obvious question to ask, therefore is, which is the best product to use for my situation? Almost certainly the answer to this question is “It’s the one you have!”. 

Dispersants and vaccines both undergo development testing and approval processes to ensure final products are proven to be safe and effective.  In addition, independent testing and monitoring protocols provide further assurance that products remain so when deployed. Therefore it matters little which product you have. Indeed, all will have passed these critical benchmark standards for quality, efficacy, and safety (or toxicity in the case of dispersants) and should work as designed assuming conditions allow. 

Presenting science clearly

Whether it’s an oil spill or a global pandemic, communicating complex science in a clear, concise, and accessible way is always tricky.  

Throughout the pandemic, we have become familiar with a raft of respected experts who use visual models, graphs and charts to explain the dynamics of the situation and projections under a range of scenarios. 

Experts regularly present us with comparative trend graphs together with best-case and worst-case projections, but there have been some mistakes too.  For example, software programmes don’t always display as they should on presentation screens having an unfortunate tendency to cut off or obscure the graph axis or legend, rendering the information confusing or otherwise unhelpful. Furthermore, the challenge of explaining the inherent inaccuracy and uncertainty of forecast modelling can further undermine confidence in the information shown

Whether it is a press conference soundbite or a newspaper headline, succinct clarity is essential to convey the desired message successfully.  However, painting a picture with words requires skill and in England, the government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van-Tam is an acknowledged master of the technique.  His metaphors and football analogies struck a chord with an anxious population and confirmed his cult status as the most trusted face of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It is essential to consistently apply the KISS (Keep-It-Simple, Stupid) principle in risk communication.  Studies have shown that the brain finds it relatively easy to grasp threes, whether concepts discussed or subliminally within colours, fonts and styles used.   Push that marginally up to four, and the brain gets confused about where to look and what to do, and retention consequently suffers.  “Hands, Face, Space” is a reminder of how this principle was applied in the early days of the pandemic and provides an example of the clarity of message needed.  

Short, often repeated videos with a memorable message have been a critical engagement tool, particularly in reaching the younger generation who may not access traditional mainstream broadcast news media.  In addition, these videos are shared across social media platforms and help engage an audience that was previously hard to reach.  

Social media, this mixed blessing, can also be a breeding ground for misinformation, mistrust, or contempt.  An emotive situation (e.g. Covid 19 or an oil spill) can easily polarise opinions and the algorithms that drive these platforms enable those seeking an alternative narrative to find who and what they are looking for, no matter how credible (or not) such views may be. Nevertheless, it is ever more important to make use of the engagement opportunity that social media provides. If you don’t manage this space, it will manage you! The sceptics will seek to undermine the mainstream narrative in any case but stakeholder engagement through these platforms is also a powerful tool, which similarly needs to find a place to be heard.

Applying industry lessons

It’s also worth noting that some of the risk communication techniques used in the pandemic have evolved from previous global-interest events in other sectors. 

For example, following the Macondo incident the oil industry hired a team of communication experts to help engage stakeholders (including regulators) on the techniques of spill response which were proving hard to explain. 

People needed to understand why adding dispersant to an oil spill can ultimately benefit sensitive resources.  The outputs became known as “scan/glance”; a series of stylised PowerPoint ™   presentation files that employ a very neutral colour palette, plain, capitalised text, and simple iconography to convey key technical concepts factually and concisely  

The slide decks are entirely unbranded and designed to speak "for and on behalf of industry". In addition, they are freely available to be used in conversations with stakeholders who need to know in simple terms what ingredients are in dispersant, how they work, and the consequences of not using all the available tools in the responder's toolbox. 

The team further developed a range of other documentation to support these high level -low detail outputs.  Good practice guides, technical reports and “deep-dive” study documents provided the essential underpinning needed to give the scan/glance materials the credibility and authority required.    

Furthermore, the team delivered a concerted roll-out program to promote the suite of materials to around 500 responders worldwide. This programme inspired a ripple effect of "confident ambassadors", trusted advocates of the industry mantra on oil spill preparedness and response.

Learning from the pandemic

Experiencing the response to the pandemic as UK citizens reinforced several truisms that many oil spill responders already know:   

  • In an oil spill, as in a pandemic, speed of decision-making and subsequent action is a critical success factor
  • Stakeholder engagement (through a wide variety of media) is essential throughout: 
    • There can be a need to convince stakeholders (the public) that by injecting a blend of scientifically endorsed products, it will somehow make the situation better
    • Despite best efforts to use social media for positive stakeholder engagement, this space abounds with conspiracy theorists opposed to the presented scientific consensus
    • There are inevitably trade-offs that need careful explanation, but it is essential to build consensus and communicate them openly and faithfully.

In risk communications, whether it is an oil spill or a global pandemic there are many parallels to the situation that governments and industry can learn from each other’s past experiences.  Consistent, trustworthy communication clearly presented and at different levels of detail to suit the audience must remain the goal that we all strive for whenever an incident or crisis happens. 

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