Saskatchewan·Point of View

Husky Energy emails are ineffective in wake of oil spill, says expert

A crisis communications expert says Husky Energy needs to interact directly with the public and media, rather than only communicating via e-mail.

'Email is the lowest form of building trust and caring': Barry McLoughlin

Four communities remain in a state of emergency. (Matthew Garand/CBC)

Husky Energy has said they will only communicate with the media by e-mail in regards to the 250,000-litre oil spill.

On Thursday, Barry McLoughlin, a crisis communications expert told CBC News that the strategy is ineffective.

First and foremost, people want to know if the company cares about the community and the environment following an oil spill, McLoughlin said.

"You can't get a test of somebody caring if they default down into emails, and so email is the lowest form of building trust and caring."

Additionally, people need to see senior officials at the head of the disaster, he said, adding physical interaction allows observers to measure things like vocal tone and body language.

"They have to be present because if you're not there you don't care," said McLoughlin.

Company was off to a good start

A company needs to take full responsibility following a crisis and Husky seemed to do that, he said. 

They also participated in the daily media conference calls used to update the public. 

However, after joining in for two days they stopped and haven't participated in another.

Then Husky announced they would not conduct any interviews and would only answer questions by email. 

McLoughlin said companies often resort to emails or lawyers when "things heat up." 

In the end, emails are ineffective and the silence distracts from their participation in the clean up, McLoughlin said. 

"You end up in a situation where it seems like you're hiding behind a wall." 

Wildlife rehabilitation workers hold an oil-covered Canada goose at Maidstone, Sask., near the site of a Husky Energy oil pipeline leak. (Submitted by Wendy Wandler )

In his experience, when a company resorts to emails it is because they feel frustrated they aren't getting their desired message across.

McLouglin said that probably stems from the growing controversy over the timeline of the spill.

However, he said communication can't end regardless of the issues. 

"You have to have somebody out there, not only explaining it, but taking questions directly on it."

Currently, they are relying on a media and issues manager as their sole spokesperson. The 'many brains to one mouth' tactic is common, he said. 

McLoughlin said a public relations person doesn't chalk up to a senior employee demonstrating accountability after a crisis. 

"It's a very different level of authority. It is not going to be the voice of authority," he said.

Turning things around

"If I was the advisor I would say get out there tomorrow and hold a news conference," he said.

"It's never too late to do the right thing."

A senior official should utilize technology if they can't be on the ground, McLoughlin said, noting they should issue a video statement to the affected communities. 

"People want to know: do you care about us and what actions are you taking to demonstrate that?"

Husky is accountable to the affected public and must rebuild trust in order to rebuild their image, he said. 

With files from the Afternoon Edition