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June 7, 2010
Crossing a Learning Gulf

Occasionally, usually in the face of crisis or catastrophe, we may, indeed ought to, step back and ask what makes for really effective public relations -- how could this have been avoided, how do we get on a better road, achieve a different destiny as an organization or a society? Asking the biggest questions is the beginning of wisdom, and maybe of progress if we can stay with the insights that result.

Such idle but entirely pertinent thoughts emerge from following the gulf oil spill and, now, reading a think piece by Jon K. Broadbooks, executive editor of The State Journal-Register and SJ-R.com in Springfield, Ill. Why do we have to keep learning anew in the face of crisis, he asks. Why don't we learn sufficiently and together the first time? Why don't we pay real heed to what a crisis demonstrates? Why, in this case, wasn't Katrina a sufficient catastrophe to avoid BP's spill? What, we would add, if BP had been concerned about public relations in the best, most fundamental sense, that of doing things well and right?

"The Gulf Coast is no stranger to calamity," Broadbooks writes, "and as recent experience would show, a lack of effective government planning for worst-case scenarios is as evident now as it was before and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"How do I know? I saw firsthand the complete inability of the federal government to plan for and initially respond to that disaster, and it's not like the concept of a massive hurricane slamming into the Gulf Coast was a freakish, out-there concept."

Broadbooks was previously an executive editor of the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American. "I heard local emergency management officials talk for years about how woefully inadequate planning was for a large storm. ...."

Of course, a hurricane results from natural forces and can only be responded to. We're talking now about a situation in which human effort and performance went horribly awry. At the heart of Katrina and BP -- disaster response and corporate performance -- are learning disciplines, the conscientious application of what should be entirely apparent if you think hard and respectfully enough about worst-case scenarios. 

So far the nuclear power industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, seem to have learned much more effectively from the Three Mile Island Accident 31 years ago than the oil industry and its inept regulators learned from oil spills before this one. We wouldn't bet on it but we can hope that that continues to be the case -- for we can't risk losing another energy source at this point.

Broadbooks lists parallels between Katrina and the BP spill. In terms of learning techniques, they're not all that important. What is important is the capacity to think deeply and respectfully enough, systematically enough, about doing things well on behalf of nature and the people who depend upon a given natural environment. We are all part of one environment or another.

"Despite the risks of drilling so deep in the ocean," Broadbooks notes, "no one seemed capable of thinking through true worst-case scenarios."

No one thought systematically or respectfully enough. No one recognized that public relations in the deepest, truest sense begins with an act of imagining what it would be like if the worst happened, and therefore, what it will actually take either to keep it from happening (man-made situations) or to respond effectively (natural disasters).

Profound public relations, and effective planning, begin with acts of empathy -- conscientiously imagining what would happen if the worst happened. Then we would truly know where we are and be able to respond in advance to keep from ever being in that worst place.

The thing is, though, truly imaginative thinking is a strenuous discipline with costs in time and resources. Both need to be built more assuredly and responsively into our business, environmental and, above all, educational systems. 

"A West Virginia coal mine explodes." Broadbooks observes, "and we find that an energy company fought regulators to a virtual standstill.

"A plane crashes in Buffalo, N.Y., because pilots may have been exhausted and we learn that the National Transportation Safety Board had for years been urging the Federal Aviation Administration to tighten flight rules to address pilot fatigue.

"We need to start learning from the past, not dooming ourselves to repeat it.

"Cynically, I wonder if we ever will."

There's reason enough for cynicism. There always is. The thing is, to change the horizon. To look high and respectfully enough together, and never lose the readiness to recall what happens if we don't. That needs to be our new reality as a people and a civilization. If we're not up to it, we haven't learned enough from all our mishaps -- we haven't, indeed, grown up.

We've got to get across a learning gulf and stay there. 








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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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