Saturday, March 14, 2009

From Bad to Worse: The Perils of Underestimating Bad News

When I conduct crisis communications exercises and simulations it is very common for the trainees to minimize the bad news that is in front of them or to delay reporting it. Human beings generally hate delivering bad news. In the exercises we run, you can see the instinct kick in and the discomfort that comes with the prospect of telling a relative that their loved one has been killed or informing a neighborhood that your company has just polluted its groundwater.

That instinct was on display big time this week in Australia, where a massive oil spill coated more than 40 miles of Queensland beaches. Those beaches are called “The Sunshine Coast.” Seems like a great place to visit and a lousy place to have a big oil spill.

According to the BBC, “The crisis was sparked when high seas whipped up by Cyclone Hamish toppled 31 containers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer from the deck of the Pacific Adventurer. As they fell, the containers punctured the hull and released the oil, also taking 620 tonnes of the chemical fertilizer to the ocean floor.”

The Pacific Adventurer’s first report stated that only a small amount of fuel had been spilled. The shipping company, Swire Shipping, said in a posting on its Web site that the “earlier estimates of oil loss were made in difficult conditions on board.”

Public officials, some of whom are in the midst of an election campaign, are livid that the amount spilled is 10 times the initial report. Some of them claim that the shipping company lied. As I write this, Swire Shipping reports that 42.5 tonnes of oil went into the water, but other news outlets are reporting that about 200 tonnes spilled. If I did my math right (and I make no guarantees) 200 tonnes of oil = about 61,000 US gallons. I have no idea if the shipping company is deliberately understating the amount of the spill or if public officials are deliberately overstating their estimates. Maybe everyone is simply reporting the best estimates they have. Reliable information in a crisis is often elusive.

Reading the updates from Swire's Web site leaves me with the feeling that they are resisting releasing bad news because maybe something positive will be uncovered and they can release that. Where could all that good news be hiding? Under the oil that's covering the beach?

Crises tend to go from bad to worse, and the Pacific Adventurer is no exception. As the ship was being righted in Brisbane Harbor, more oil escaped booms placed around the ship to keep oil from spreading. The small slick went into the Brisbane River raising even more ire among already agitated public officials. Now, officials warn that a second wave of oil could wash ashore on the beaches in the next few days.

So what can you do to prepare for a crisis and give yourself the best chance to overcome the powerful human nature to delay bad news? Here are two tips:

1) Train to Deliver Bad News
The first time you deliver bad news shouldn’t be when there is real bad news to deliver. You should train with scenarios that simulate interacting with the public, the press and those directly impacted. This type of training helps you understand your reactions to these situations. If you know how you'll react, you can control your reactions more effectively in a real crisis.

2) Make the Training Realistic
Train for the worst-case scenario. That means practice a catastrophic environmental disaster or an accident involving death or serious injury. You do yourself no favors if you rehearse a scenario in which there was a small fire, no one was hurt and everyone reacted perfectly. No real crisis EVER works that way, so don’t train that way.

And just in case you doubt the crisis concept of "bad to worse," consider this. It's not just about the oil. Remember, this ship also dumped 31 containers full of fertilizer into the sea. A leak from any of those containers could cause a harmful, toxic algal bloom.

Lastly, let's put a fine point on the human propensity to hope for the best. Someone at Swire Shipping made a decision to sail that ship into a cyclone.

Good call.

Bill Salvin


  1. It's amazing how quickly 'estimate error' - that are notoriously difficult to make even in the best of circumstances - transformed into 'you lied'.

  2. It's amazing how quickly we made an error turned to you lied!
    Oil spill estimates are difficult enough to make in perfect conditions, even tougher at other times.