The oil spill has been dominating the news, as it should. This situation has the potential of becoming an even graver catastrophe than it has been already.
The photos of the poor birds dominate the news almost every day. Many websites, including ours, have the oil-spill cam on their sites, complete with a calculator rolling off the number of barrels spilling into the Gulf. It is a public relations disaster for BP and the White House. I believe President Obama is doing everything he can do, as I said in last week's column. What isn't being done by the Obama administration is a better job at public relations.
The president canceled his trip to Asia, which was a smart and sensible move. None of the people in America want to see their president holding up glasses of wine at fancy dinners when people's livelihoods are at risk. However, the American public needs more direct communication. The press conference last week was a great start as most of the questions were on the oil spill and the president answered them directly.
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Now, building on the president's press conference, the White House should get out there where public opinion is formed. It is not that the Obama administration has not been disseminating information; it has. Several times a week it puts out the following bulletin: "Updated: The ongoing administration-wide response to the deepwater BP spill." It is fairly comprehensive and includes the phone numbers for the agencies responsible as well as exactly what each agency is doing. For a wonk it gives a pretty good road map.
The problem is that most people are not wonks, and they get their information from the front pages of newspapers and blogs. The headlines on those news disseminators are not pretty and are not being addressed directly by the administration in a form that is highly digestible. A survey of the news from both right and left sources shows that there is a gap between what is being written about in the bulletin and what is actually being written and talked about in the 24-hour news cycle.
On the front page of Sunday's New York Times, above the fold, is a huge photo of the initial fire on the oil rig. Underneath is the story "At issue in the Gulf: Who was in charge? Hodgepodge of oversight for rig helped set the stage for disaster." Think Progress, a liberal site, had an article titled "BP and Halliburton build legal teams, attempt to buy off government officials." Although the article was aimed at how BP is trying to buy off Republicans, the headline could be construed to be a negative for the Obama team. Fox News had the has the headline "BP cleanup program reportedly helping weekend warriors not fisherman."
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So, what should the Obama administration do? They need to fish where the fish are and realize that they must combat each and every headline and wrong perception. The George W. Bush administration regularly sent out a "Setting the record straight" bulletin to combat news reports. The Obama administration needs to do the same. In addition, spokespersons need to get on radio and talk TV programs to answer questions that are on the minds of the people. I hear time and time again about the disbursement of oil from a chemical. The word is that this process is causing more environmental damage and makes it harder to clean up the oil. This needs to be addressed. Good or bad?
With pressure from the Gulf States Congressional Delegations to reopen drilling, people want to know if permits will be issued. They need clarification between deep-water drilling and shallow-water drilling.
I suggest that the White House ask people to send in questions to Whitehouse.gov and then post answers daily. They have all the social media sites up and working so they should make them more active with big government officials responding. Pushing back on false information is also critical because the rumor mill has taken hold of this crisis.
There is more than the issue of an oil spill here. There is a spill of the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet driving information. The information does not address the man on the street's questions. It only leaves more questions, and the government is in a unique position to fill in the gaps.