The big idea: A U.S. Coast Guard Reserve officer has her hands full as she attempts to manage the communication center for the BP oil spill.

The scenario:  On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling unit located 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana caught fire and exploded, killing 11 rig workers and injuring 16. Deepwater Horizon was owned and operated by Transocean but was drilling for the oil giant BP. The subsequent leak spilled nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil before being capped three months later. As is protocol for oil spills, the Coast Guard moved swiftly to execute the national contingency plan, which included notifying President Obama and setting up an incident command center.

On May 17, Senior Chief Petty Reserve Officer Barbara Voulgaris was told to report to the unified area command center based in Mobile, Ala. She would lead the Joint Information Center, the unit responsible for managing all communication associated with the spill.  Upon her arrival, “it was just insane,” she said. Phones were ringing. People were running around, asking for information and confirming data. Seated together at laptop terminals were U.S. Coast Guard members as well as representatives from BP, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Agriculture Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Health and Human Services and Interior departments. All were responding to questions and comments such as: “Are the ports open?,” “Where do I get a check cashed?,” “Where do I volunteer?,” “I heard that a ship came in and it had to have its hull cleaned because it had oil all over it,” and “I hate you and hope you all die.”

There was no organization to what was being communicated, to whom, by whom and when. The center was to provide accurate and timely information to the media. It was also responsible for managing social media such as blogs and for developing talking points for Obama.

On top of the sheer volume of work, Voulgaris was faced with 100 percent turnover of the Coast Guard personnel every 30 to 60 days. This meant that the Coast Guard members and the representatives from other agencies who needed to collaborate on the content and process for communication never formed a cohesive unit. At times they even provided conflicting information. Add to this chaos 16-hour work days and a high-stress work environment. Voulgaris knew she needed to develop a major intervention — and do so quickly to keep everyone on message and on task. 

The resolution: Voulgaris developed a rotation to relieve the long working hours and standard operating procedures to maintain the flow of knowledge after her own 60-day rotation expired. She found creative ways to change the work environment and help ease the burnout and emotional toll.  Because her staff was often the target of ugly communication, Voulgaris brought humor into the workplace and found ways to lighten the mood. This included off-site trips to interact with people in the community who appreciated the center’s efforts.

The lesson: Crises will become more, rather than less, likely as the pace of change increases and the nature of doing business in a global environment grows more complex.  How leaders manage the emotional, physical and psychological tumult their employees face during these critical moments will lay the groundwork for decision-making and actions that can have considerable consequence for the organization. Crisis events are negative, yet a leader’s response to them need not be. 

Erika Hayes James

James is associate professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and co-author of “Leading Under Pressure — From Surviving to Thriving Before, During, and After a Crisis.”