Environmental Response Policy

6/9/2017: IOSC Recap #6 – Establishing new Best Response standards through positive communication: A look at Best Response criteria 20 years later

Have you ever struggled with public and stakeholder communication during an incident? Lt. Dave Vihonski with the Atlantic Area’s incident management division had the opportunity to present at IOSC 2017 on the importance of incorporating public and stakeholder engagement into the Best Response Model. His presentation, “Establishing New Best Response Standards Through Positive Communication: A Look at Best Response Criteria 20 Years Later,” was part of the panel “Communication and Stakeholder Engagement” moderated by the Coast Guard’s Wyman Briggs. Vihonski’s remarks are not ‘as delivered’ but provide a condensed version of the panel highlights in the ‘panel-conversational’ style.

Establishing New Best Response Standards Through Positive Communication: A Look at Best Response Criteria 20 Years Later

What is the Best Response Model? Best Response Model was presented at IOSC in 1999 and it established maximum effectiveness measures that really changed the oil spill response game. Over the last 20 years we’ve seen implementation of policies that now need to be looked at so we can re-evaluate the best response criteria: federal policies like the National Response Framework, the Post-Katrina Act, and the Homeland Security Act of 2002. There’s been a change in public perception and public expectations and what we found when looking at the Best Response Model was a lack of in-depth communication.

Why should we focus on communication? In short, communication leads to better relationships. With better relationships, you can lead yourself to a better response. We can increase confidence in response actions and decisions when we know in advance who we’re working with and how we can expect them to react.

With this in mind, we’re going to look at a revised model.

First, we need to talk about perceptions. Most of the critical success factors focused on positive perceptions from the public and stakeholders, but you’re not going to have all positive perceptions all the time; you have to learn to accept the negative perceptions along with the positive ones.

By allowing for negative perceptions you can implement a strategy and part of that strategy should be to establish a feedback loop. Here’s what this means:

A responder develops and initiates some type of response action and the individual or organization affected by it develops a perception about it and hopefully communicates feedback back to the initiator. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen and it’s where the largest breakdown in communication occurs.

You need to make sure expectations are clear and your authorities are clear. For me, as a federal government employee, I ask for written delegation and/or expectations. If you have established clear expectations and authority then you can influence the positive perceptions of your actions to your supervisor.

This translates to a type of ‘boss management.’ This isn’t a one-and-done thing. You have to continuously ask for information. If you’re unclear on something, ask. Keep your boss informed and maintain trust and confidence and communication. Greater confidence reduces oversight. No one likes a micromanager on a response.

Two components of ICS [Incident Command System] will help you avoid having to do damage control with your boss:

Critical information requirements. These are routinely used to establish information requirements needed to make decisions in a reasonable about of time. Examples include injuries in the field or resources out of commission.

Immediate Reporting Thresholds. These are exactly what they sound like; information that needs to be reported immediately, such as deaths, a major change in oil trajectories, or another incident occurring within the current one.

Now I’d like to talk about public communication. The public and media have come to expect immediate and complete information and can hardly wait for a story to develop before forming opinions. This has happened mostly because of the influx of 24/7 news and social media networking. Today, 87 percent of Americans are on line and 76 percent of those use social media. We must use social media in particular to manage communication and gather and share response information. Anything from coordinating volunteers to asking for donations to re-establishing communication with your workers, social media is a good way to reach people.

That said, we need to establish control early. Once social media perceptions gets out of hand it’s a tough problem to wrangle. People are going to form perceptions regardless. They want that information and they’re going to get it, no matter where they are. We’ve all been on Facebook, we’ve all seen the news that’s on there; we may not know which ones are legitimate or not. People are going to run with those. With Twitter, the more followers someone has, the more they are going to influence your response and your actions based on their highly subjective perceptions.

So, you need incorporate it. You need to get your information out there. Improve situational awareness, which means you need to engage citizens. Use social media to get a broader scope of what’s in the common operating picture. Use it to help establish rumor management. The more people you can get on your side working for you through social media, the better you can control the rumors. Gather real time information and intel from social media, but make sure it’s factual and beneficial to the response before you put it in play.

The benefits are that you reach more people. They can see what you’re doing. No one wants to find themselves in a defensive tweeting situation. If you do that you’ll be met with hostile perceptions.

Now, let’s talk about stakeholder relationships. Managing stakeholders effectively is a good way to ensure your communication efforts are going in the right direction. There are three types of stakeholders:

  • Primary – those that are directly influenced by your response actions or the incident
  • Secondary – those that are indirectly influenced
  • Key stakeholders – those with influence and power


Develop positive working environments. If you can’t get buy in from your stakeholders, use a liaison. And anything you can do before an incident occurs is only going to benefit the organization in a response.

Everyone should be considered a stakeholder; you may have stakeholders internal or external to your organization but you need to provide information to them and make sure you have a positive perception differential.

In conclusion, you have to ask yourself on a response, what level of confidence does the public, my stakeholders, my supervisor have in my actions? You have to realize that everyone is a stakeholder and engage the whole community.

Perhaps you’ve heard of FEMA’s ‘Whole Community’ approach. It’s the foundation for increasing individual preparedness and engaging with members of the community to enhance resiliency and security. This goes back to stakeholders; everyone has a piece of the pie, it’s everyone’s disaster, everyone’s response. If we can get everyone to buy in to the Whole Community concept, then we can increase our positive perception differential.

Make sure whatever information the public is providing or their perceptions are getting back to you. Have someone in the JIC [joint information center] manage social media, manage stakeholders, and then get that information so they know they’re being heard. Finally, take ownership. This is your response, you’re in charge. The public and stakeholders will appreciate the clarity you can provide.

Developing and maintaining effect communication with supervisors, stakeholders, and the public are truly the new standards for the new Best Response Model.

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