Aramco Services Company
Since 1997, Pierpont Communications has assisted Aramco Services Company (ASC) in preparing for the biggest crisis an oil company could face — how to respond to a devastating oil spill. Each year, Pierpont helps plan, staff and implement communication activities for a training exercise led by the company’s Oil Spill Response Team (OSRT). These activities involve up to 100 individuals, including employees, contractors, community officials and government representatives.
The exercise focuses on a simulated oil spill involving ASC’s shipping subsidiary, Vela International Marine Limited. In addition, it includes other organizations that interact with the company, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA, FBI, U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife, Texas Parks and Wildlife and others. The venue for the exercise rotates among the four U.S. Coast Guard zones on the Gulf of Mexico in which the company’s vessels operate, shipping crude oil from Saudi Arabia to the U.S.
First, Pierpont identifies the target audiences in each market for the Public Affairs component of the OSRT exercise. The constituents in each community who could potentially be impacted by an oil spill include the general public, business owners, elected officials, environmentalists, company employees and the City of Houston (the company’s headquarters). The news media that serve these communities is another important audience for communication surrounding an oil spill, including reporters that cover the energy industry.
As in a genuine crisis, this simulation is designed to include many unknown factors for effective preparation. Therefore, Pierpont’s primary recommendations to the ASC team include reviewing previous drill information and anticipating and preparing for the inevitable surprises and uncertainties.
To be most effective, Pierpont and the ASC team review and update the OSRT crisis communications plan regularly. This includes contact information for all pertinent local and state officials and agencies, key Web sites, facts sheets and more. Most of the data is stored in electronic format and taken to the drill locations on the team’s laptops. The data is also available to the team not only through a browser-enabled OSRT network set up at the drill site, but also is available in a hard copy form.
Next, Pierpont identifies several objectives for the simulated training exercise that hone in on the organization’s skills to manage a crisis of this caliber. First, a Joint Information Center (JIC) is established as the site for all communications operations. Pierpont conducts media training of ASC spokespeople and simulates a news conference at the JIC to test the spokespersons’ abilities to handle crisis-related issues under pressure.
Pierpont also tests their knowledge by arranging for facilitators to call the spokespersons and act as reporters, members of special interest groups and concerned individuals in the public. Up to 70 facilitator calls are made to the JIC during drills to ensure smooth operations and confident spokespersons. In addition, all calls are logged in the company’s records for use in tracking response and using in debriefing sessions following the drill.
Facilitators do their best to “hassle” those answering phones, but preparation usually pays off. Pierpont prepares and provides the ASC Public Affairs team with all background information and talking points necessary to help the team properly field inquiries and effectively answer questions with consistent messages and agreed-upon channels of communication.
During each drill, Pierpont also presents the company with another challenge: the team must write and simulate distribution of all necessary materials to the media in a real time format. This involves the drill site sending all news announcements to Houston, where they are then distributed to a comprehensive database of media contacts. With Pierpont’s help, the company approves and distributes approximately six news releases and three media advisories during a two-day drill. Our team also prepares a company statement of concern, spokesperson talking points for all JIC spokespersons and press kits for media distribution with important facts and information. The team also routinely conducts online research to gather information needed for unexpected scenario twists and turns.
Each year, the Pierpont team trains new ASC employees, quite often from Saudi Arabia and the U.K., in the fine art of crisis communication preparedness. With every Oil Spill Response Team exercise, lessons are learned and the process and materials improve. Thanks to Pierpont’s guidance, the ASC team can now tap and build upon comprehensive media databases and information archives for future exercises. Most importantly, however, the skills learned help ensure the team is adequately prepared if a real emergency ever occurs.