Lessons and dilemmas of two and a half years of 24x7 quake communication
The earthquakes in Groningen also caused significant cracks in the reputation of the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM). Communication Manager Chiel Seinen was charged with repairing the damage and strengthening the house.
During the interview in the Groningen town of Loppersum, Chiel Seinen, communications manager of the Groningen Earthquake Team of the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (NAM), leaves his mobile phone on the table. The device is set to silent, but not turned off. ‘In the event of a calamity, people should be able to contact me immediately.’ This calamity occurs an hour after the interview:
On March 24, at 2.29 in the afternoon, Appingedam is rocked by an earthquake of 2.3 on the Richter scale. It is the 30th earthquake in Groningen this year, just three months in. The result: 156 reports of cracks and other damage to houses, in addition to the 35,000 reports that are already on his desk. The residents of the province of Groningen are sick and tired of the numerous earthquakes as a result of gas extraction, and of the uncertainty about the severity of future earthquakes. And this is not only true for the ‘Grunningers’. Since the most powerful earthquake to date, in Huizinge on August 16, 2012 (3.6 on the Richter scale), the regional problem has rapidly become a national issue. Action groups, local councils and politicians are stirring, the media are full of quake reports and the subject was used by many politicians during their election campaign. Even The New York Times and USA Today reported on the earthquakes. In response to all the commotion, minister Kamp of Economic Affairs, last year decided to reduce the drilling volume to 39.4 billion m3.
‘HUIZINGE WAS A TURNING POINT. SUDDENLY, IT WAS ABOUT SAFETY AS WELL’
However, this is not enough for the Stichting Vrienden van Groningen Centraal and the Groningen divisions of political parties SP, CDA and GroenLinks. They recently started emergency proceedings with the Council of State, demanding the immediate ban on gas extraction.
A damning report by the Research Board for Safety, published earlier this year, threw oil on the fire. According to the report, the safety of the residents of Groningen was not considered important by the NAM (a joint venture of Shell and Exxon) and other interested parties (the Ministry of Economic Affairs, State Supervision of Mines, EBN, Shell, ExxonMobil and GasTerra), until 2013. Earning money was considered of the utmost importance; the risks were not recognized. According to the report, the NAM paid insufficient attention to its duty of care, by not pro-actively researching the effects of gas extraction. In addition, the ‘poor communication’ by the parties ‘contributed to the distrust and feelings of insecurity among residents’. NAM, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the supervisors had little regard for those feelings. The communication was technocratic, the message too reassuring and citizens and local authorities were not involved enough and often confronted with a fait accompli.
According to the report, the communication with residents should be improved and there has to be more transparency about uncertainties, considerations and the decision-making process.
The NAM still has to give an official response to the report. As a result, Seinen cannot say anything about the report during the interview.
However, he does anticipate the lessons and dilemmas of two and a half years of 24x7 ‘quake communication’.
Where were you during the earthquake in Huizinge?
‘At home. The earthquake was late in the evening. I was on duty, and we immediately took out the damage protocol, as usual. But it soon became clear that the earthquake had had more impact than previous ones. It had lasted longer, around 8 to 9 seconds, and people had seen the earth move. There was more damage as well. Normally,we get only a few phone calls from people reporting damage, but there were a lot more calls.
The mayor of Loppersum was also quickly to say to the media that we did not handle the complaints properly. That is also what we heard when we went out to talk to the residents. It turned out that there were a lot of emotional issues in play. As a result, we decided to set up a more generous compensation scheme. But it was not only about the damage. In that respect, Huizinge was a turning point. All of a sudden, it was also about safety. In January 2013, Minister Kamp visited the local sports hall to announce an investigation into the impact of gas extraction. His message: The earthquakes may become more severe in the future, we are trying to find out how severe and then we will make a decision on gas extraction. Everything the residents had considered to be certain was pulled from under their feet. One year and several earthquakes later, Kamp again gave a press conference, about the cabinet decision to scale back gas extraction, up to 80 percent in Loppersum, in addition to an universally supported package of measures to compensate the damage, strengthen buildings and invest in liveability and economy. But the genie was already out of the bottle. During the press conference, protesters were outside the building. Since then, the situation has remained volatile.’
‘I’M DOING THIS FOR JAN FROM LOPPERSUM’
Since August 2012, Chiel Seinen has been on a rollercoaster ride. It just keeps on going and going; There are things happening every day and the earthquakes will also continue. How long can he keep on going in this job? “I can continue doing this job because I know that behind the scenes we work with the best intentions, deploy the right resources and show commitment. People no longer feel safe in their own house. I want to fight to sort at least that aspect of the problem. It gives me courage. I do this for Jan from Loppersum, not for The Hague or the media. I can count on my team, we support each other and use each other’s knowledge. The conversations with residents also give me energy. After these discussions, they often say: I might not agree with you, but I am glad that you took the time to come and talk to me in person.’
What did this mean for the communication?
‘Ever since the earthquake in Huizinge, we also changed the way we communicate. We visit people at home. We organise information evenings, five this week, to explain to people what we do and why. These meetings are not always very pleasant. They are difficult, dramatic and emotional. I could think of a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t do it, because it often leads to negative stories in the press. But we do it to reach out to the people concerned. I am proud of this decision, and of the fact that we send out newsletters, use Twitter to communicate and give interviews. We try to be as open and transparent as possible. It is not nice if we have to evacuate a house for safety reasons, but it is better if we tell people the bad news ourselves. Our production figures are now published on the website and we talk to national and international media. That is also different. Before, our communication was predominantly focused on local and regional projects. The average Dutch citizen had never heard of the NAM. I always had to explain to people what type of company I worked for. Many people also thought that the NAM was a state-owned company. After Huizinge, we suddenly were all over the national news. So much is happening, it is a many-headed monster. Every day, things happen: You’re in a pressure cooker and under a magnifying glass. The other activities of the NAM continue as usual. In addition, there are trends in society that require a more intensive communication strategy. We have drastically expanded our communications department.
Before this all began, we were a team of 6, responsible for all communication activities. Now, my team consists of 11 people, who solely deal with earthquakes, and the normal communications team has also been expanded to 15 people. In other words, we went from 6 to 26 people.’
And to finish it all off, that damning report by the Research Board for Safety in February...
‘The report was leaked early January. Because of the large number of parties that had received a concept, and all the emotions surrounding the issue, this was not surprising. We had already anticipated this in our communication efforts. We respected the Research Board by only issuing a short reaction, without going into the report. It was really difficult, because the report is very critical. Your 1,800 employees also read about it in the newspaper, are faced with difficult questions at home and have to defend themselves at parties. However, we decided to wait until the definitive report was published before issuing a press release. In that press release, we stressed that the report deals primarily with the situation before 2013. Since that turning point, we have changed our policy. Our official response will follows shortly.’
Why is it taking so long? Does waiting not mean you are severely lagging behind with regard to the press and public opinion?
‘It’s a huge dilemma. Every day, employees come to me, saying: Can you please hurry up with that story? But with respect to this file, I’ve learned that you should not respond immediately. You have to keep thinking two steps ahead. It is our ambition to gain sufficient social, administrative and legal support. We want to continue extracting gas in the Netherlands and our employees should be able to do their job safely, without needing police escorts. That is the end game. It is better to react well once than achieve small victories in the short term. In addition, everything we say is used against us in court, which means that all our communications also have to pass the legal test.'
Does that also apply to apologies? The NAM has yet to apologize, while damage control starts with a mea culpa. Is the company listening to what you have to say?
‘I have no problem making my point to the board, and my voice is as loud as any one else’s. I have my own mandate and I don’t have to check everything with Shell and ExxonMobil. Of course, I have presented the larger communication plan to them and they are good sparring partners where strategy is concerned. But within that scope, I have complete freedom. That does not take away the fact that as a communications professional you have to adopt an integrated viewpoint. I can say: from a communicative standpoint, we have to do this and this to score points and gain social support, but it is useless if you lose all your court cases. Or if you win every case, but as a company are no longer welcome in Loppersum, and your staff can’t do their job any more. It is a difficult balance, there is no silver bullet. In addition, communication follows policy. It is tempting to go counteract this by shouting in the media: We will have this solved before the end of the year. Our director would be on Nieuwsuur (Dutch version of News Night) tomorrow. But we are judged by our actions and those of our external partners, who are responsible for damage handling and strengthening the houses. Residents are still left with damage and feel insecure, and they are faced with delay on delay. First, we have to get the background stuff organized, to ensure that we can keep the promises we make. Additional studies have to reduce the uncertainties surrounding the earthquake risk. Until that time, we will have to accept that we are in a difficult position as far as communication is concerned. People say: As long as you have not fixed the damage to my house, and I can’t live here safely, I’m not interested in your pretty stories, you newsletters or the fact that you’ve renovated the playground in our village. And I can understand that. Only when all that is done, can we start regaining our credibility and trust. Only then can we, slowly but surely, come with good news here and there.’
‘EVERY DAY, EMPLOYEES COME TO ME, ASKING: CAN YOU PLEASE HURRY UP WITH THAT STORY?’
How do you deal with the criticism of the way you communicated in the reportby the Research Board?
‘For example, we now publish facts and production figures for gas extraction on our website. Internally, it took quite a bit of effort to dig out this information and to make it insightful for the general public, but we managed to do it. The second step is a different way of communicating: What does this mean for the people themselves? Before, we communicated in numbers only: Our gas earned 12 billion Euros for the treasury, we extracted so many cubic meters of gas per year and experienced so many centimetres subsidence. I am aiming for more personalized, tailored information. It is my ambition that residents will be able to check their smart phone to see what the risk of an earthquake is: What is the safety level for this location and what damage or strengthening schemes apply to my case?’
The communication by the NAM is technocratic, according to the Research Board.
‘We are technical experts, we want to have all the answers. If we don’t know something, we first carry out a study. That is the old NAM. We have to be honest about our uncertainties and explain what they are. In the 65 years our company has existed, there has never been a need to do so, and it is not something you can change overnight. At the start, I used the word ‘tremor’. This may be the correct scientific term for it, but when talking to residents, they mentioned it as their main irritation: For them, these are proper earthquakes. In contacts with residents, I also try to avoid the term ‘file’, yes, after it was pointed out to me by colleagues. We still have a lot to learn, but people have the right mindset now. And if we do make a mistake, well, we learn from it and will do better next time.’
A good example is when NAM director Gerald Schotman said during an interview: ‘We are not Santa Claus’, which was promptly used as the headline for the article?
‘In principle, it was a good interview, in which our director clearly explained the dilemmas we face. We had achieved what we wanted and in addition it was a good next step for our follow-up. A headline like that doesn’t give me nightmares any more. This file does not allow for it, there just isn’t enough time, and that is the beauty of it. We have to keep communicating. Fear is a poor advisor. Our staff is given media training and we ensure that they know what they should say to people. It’s a hell of a job, to get 1,800 people on board. Plus, they are engineers, yes. But I prefer sending a person with technical know-how, who deals with this subject every day, to do an interview than sending a colleague from the communications department. Even if it has its disadvantages, for example, after such a statement. We learn from these mistakes. Luckily, we have Twitter and our own media to steer coverage. We work very hard to get our news coverage on par. The other news still dominates the media: personal stories, a photo in the NRC of a collapsed barn, which had nothing to do with the tremors... That image is far more powerful than ten news items we send out. This is such a photogenic and mediagenic issue. But still, the solution is for us to keep making the headlines, both by providing news through our own media and through free publicity. It is the best way to try and regain trust. On the way there, we have to accept that we will trip up occasionally.’
‘AT THE START, I USED THE WORD “TREMOR”, BUT FOR THE RESIDENTS THEY ARE REAL EARTHQUAKES’
What else have you learned?
‘There are things that you can plan and there are things that are totally outside your control. On the day that minister Kamp visited the sports hall in Loppersum, on January 28, 2013, the entire Dutch media was here, with satellite trucks and everything. Then it was suddenly announced that Queen Beatrix was going to make a statement announcing her abdication. Nobody had expected that to happen. That evening, we only got ten seconds in the twelve o’clock news. Once, there was a tremor while the minister was here, and a double tremor during a political debate in The Hague. My lesson is: you have to prepare all types of scenarios and have your resources at the ready, but something unexpected can always happen, forcing you to take two steps back. In such a complex file, you are constantly confronted with things that are important that day, and how fast the media works. You have to keep your eye on the ball and the entire playing field. Communication science teaches you that you should have different key message for your target audiences. The people of Groningen have other priorities than politicians, or a journalist of the New York Times. Still, you can’t communicate differently with different stakeholders, because the borders have disappeared as the media landscape has changed. The article written by that New York Times journalist will be online one hour later, and will be read by other stakeholders. Professionally, this is a great job: Both internal and external communication, dealing with politics, the media, whatever you can think of.
We do a lot of research and try to learn from others. I have also asked fellow communication advisors of other companies with experience in crisis situations for advice, yes. And I would like to call on the readers of Communicatie Magazine: If someone has found the egg of Columbus for this file, don’t hesitate to contact me. We can’t solve this on our own. We are looking for a solution, and all support is welcome.’
This article was published in Communicatie, May 2015.