The Port of Grays Harbor dropped the ball last week when its administration team made the arbitrary decision to not just ignore a town hall meeting spearheaded by the League of Women Voters, but to tell just about everyone that they were going to avoid it — and avoid any questions that came as a result of the meeting. Consider it just one big “No Comment” from the Port, the companies that want to export crude oil and just about any other advocate for the project.
In November, the Port teamed with Imperium Renewables and other officials at a forum in Ocean Shores to present its perspective on why shipping crude oil out of the Port of Grays Harbor will be a benefit to the Harbor. Both sides were there. The meeting lasted several hours and there was a promise of another forum to come in the spring. I never attended the forum in Ocean Shores. It’s a long drive for me — and the thousands of other people who live or work in East County. The League of Women Voters decided to organize an East County forum and thought about doing it in March, but, by the time they got organized, it would have left them just two weeks to get everyone present.
Instead, they pushed it off to April 23 and recruited me to be the moderator and help facilitate an active dialogue between all of the parties. That gave everyone six weeks to clear their schedules and find someone to attend. Letters were sent. Phone calls were made. The companies that want to export crude oil never showed. Imperium never showed. Westway never showed. U.S. Development never showed. And, ultimately, the Port never showed. The real heroes in all this are the officials from the state Department of Ecology who showed up and Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay, who did an admirable job explaining the regulatory issues to an audience hungry for information. At the University of Washington, I befriended and attended classes taught by a professor specializing in crisis communications. I may never have become a public affairs specialist, but my time with Professor Kathleen Fearn-Banks, a pioneer in her field, prepared me for knowing what companies should and shouldn’t do in the face of a crisis. The No. 1 rule from Professor Fearn-Banks:“Never say, ‘No Comment!’”
“To the public, refusing to comment appears to be an admission of hiding information or even guilt,” Fearn-Banks wrote in her book, aptly named “Crisis Communications.” “If you do not respond, the public does not hear your side of the story and concludes, ‘Company X refused to comment and, therefore, it must have done something terrible.’ If there is some legal reason for not revealing certain information, explain this as much as possible and promise to reveal the information at a specific time. … Do not assume that the crisis story will go away. The media can do their stories without you. They can build a case against your organization, portrayed as ‘the bad guy.’”
Congratulations, everyone who didn’t show up, the public perception is just that. In addition to more than 100 people, there were three newspapers present and people from three radio stations. The one-sided forum will be on repeat for the months ahead on Eagle TV and North Beach Television. The story got picked up by the McClatchy wire service — and appeared in many other publications — all talking about the people who didn’t show up and the one-sided forum.
Forgetting the public perception, how fair was it to the dozens of people who did attend that had not yet made up their mind on this issue and actually had legitimate questions about the projects?
This was a golden opportunity to dispell myths and attend a forum hosted by an independent, non-partisan organization moderated by me, an award-winning journalist, who gave public comment at the April Port commissioners meeting lauding the fact that the Port was going the extra mile in its public affairs division by visiting all of the city councils and conducting presentations.
Well, there were way more people at this forum than any of the council presentations — and Elma and Montesano are in the midst of doing resolutions talking about your projects.
Just this week, there was a derailment in Aberdeen. The immediate response was “at least it wasn’t crude — but it might be next time” But, the response the advocates could have painted ahead of time is that with more use of the rail comes investment in the infrastructure. Since no one was there to say those words, that thought is probably not in the public’s mind. And that’s not the public’s fault.
At a minimum, someone from the Port should have been there listening. How about the assistant public affairs person that was hired this year and reports to the public affairs director? Sounds like the perfect person paid for out of public tax dollars to just show up, nod when people are talking and take notes.
Or, how about one of the three elected Port commissioners, whose jobs should be to listen to the public and attend meetings just like this one? A whole host of mayors and council members from Hoquiam, Montesano, Elma, Centralia, a county commissioner and commissioner candidates found the time to attend. Let me put it like this: Elma High School student Jarred Figlar-Barnes gave a PowerPoint presentation on what an oil spill would do to the Harbor if a train derailed on one of the dozens of creeks or rivers the oil trains would roll over. The picture didn’t look pretty. He drew great applause. Ray Brown of Westport stood up, and called Jarred out for his lack of credentials and wanted to make sure folks knew that he was just offering an opinion. Jarred took the microphone — and the heat — and acted perfectly, admitting he was just a student and this was just an opinion, but it was an informed opinion based on research he had conducted.
Why is it an 18-year-old Elma High student volunteering his time has more guts to show up and handle that kind of pressure than any public employee at the Port of Grays Harbor?
Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org