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Crisis communication: Always ready to respond

When a crisis occurs, it will not be enough to have a contingency plan ready, practised and understood. Communication is also essential – and that job cannot be left to just anyone.

Crisis communication remains an important chapter in the textbook. Brutal demands are made on the people in the front rank of responding to crises.

The questions they face include what they can say, when they should say it, when they should not say it, how should it be said, who can say it, and who is responsible for saying it.

But what about responsibility for communicating in a crisis?
Is this so clear-cut for everyone?

Most large petroleum-related companies, Norwegian or with a long presence in Norway, treat crisis communication as part of the expertise of their own organisation.

But the question is how players who are small and medium-sized, newcomers, or have a limited Norwegian organisation and a head office elsewhere are to take charge of an accident.

The number of companies in this category has increased markedly on the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS) in recent years. Several have opted for new organisational models.

At the same time, the PSA has seen that a number of the international operators have chosen to centralise their activities around their head offices. Many use or plan to employ external resources for discharging key responsibilities. The regulations permit this in a number of areas.

  • However, all operators on the NCS are required to have their own expertise in such areas as managing and coordinating emergency response to hazards or accidents.
  • Every operator and licensee, regardless of size, must have an organisation in Norway able to ensure – on an independent basis – that petroleum operations comply with the regulations.

This requirement is also relevant for communicating the strategic decisions which must constantly be taken during a possible crisis.

The question then becomes how far smaller operators plan to leave crisis communication to their head office, or to an agency with the relevant expertise but without responsibility for the company’s operations.

In a performance based regulatory regime like Norway’s, the way compliance is achieved can vary from company to company as long as each achieves the required level of safety.

But the operator also has the duty to maintain an organisation which allows it to fulfil its operator responsibility as defined in the regulations.

Although the latter give operators great freedom to organise their activities and to utilise external resources in pursuing them, some important restrictions apply.

One is that the operator must make its own assessments and take decisions at a strategic level, such as the third line in the emergency response organisation. The third-line concept relates precisely to strategic aspects such as the company’s responsibility, commercial decisions and overall assessments – and communicating these to the media and the world at large.

So an operator must express its responsibility, assessments and duty to the public in Norway during a crisis.

Generally speaking, this role cannot be handled by consultants or be left to an office in another country. An operator on the NCS is also duty bound to keep the regulators continuously updated on developments in an emergency, and on the action it plans to take to manage the accident.

Crisis communication and the PSA
Many aspects of crisis communication are relevant for the PSA. It is itself an emergency response organisation, and has a duty phone staffed around the clock. The duty officer receives all notifications of undesirable incidents and is responsible for establishing the PSA’s emergency response organisation when necessary.

Relevant personnel are then called to its response centre in Stavanger so that the authorities can maintain continuous supervision of the operator’s actions.

The PSA’s assessments of the position are also conveyed to the world at large, and information and media management specialists form part of the emergency response team.