Friday lunchtime is a significant moment for at least two people at Aberdeen’s Fifth Ring. For one it means the next seven days being completely sober, within 20 minutes of Aberdeen and being prepared for a call at any time of day or night. For the other, it means a few beers or glasses of vino and not having to carry around a laptop and printer all week.
The solemn Friday lunch-time ceremony involves the passing over of an innocuous little black box with a small screen, which, when activated by one of Fifth Ring’s oil company clients, will spring to life with the message instructing duty media consultant to proceed to the Emergency Response Room.
It is mostly forgotten these days that there are over 100 gigantic steel and concrete installations dotting the North Sea in some of the most inhospitable seas in the world. Every week thousands of oil workers are transported between these cities on the sea and the shore in a logistical operation that would challenge even the best-trained military planners ... and things can and do go wrong.
Although statistically one of the safest industries, it is still one that presents great hazards and, as a result, oil companies have highly trained teams on call 365 days a year to assist in protecting lives, assets and reputation.
So how does it feel when the pager calls?
It’s 3 a.m. on a Wednesday. Kelly Kilner, Fifth Ring PR account director, is awoken by the sound of the phone. Before she gets to it, it rings off and she assumes it’s her husband looking for a lift home from his office Christmas party.
But then the pager starts its familiar tone, quietly at first, but then louder and more and more urgent. An hour later Kelly is in the client’s brightly lit Emergency Response Room. Status boards all around the room tell a story of an unfolding emergency. A small fire has been detected at an offshore location. Even the smallest fire is a potential crisis when it is situated on top of thousands of tonnes of oil and gas.
On the installation, over 100 miles away from the nearest land, automatic deluge systems and trained fire crews are tackling the situation. It’s highly likely that the broadcast media will be phoning soon for information for their early bulletins. Local media are trained to put in hourly calls to the coastguard; the emergency services and even the sound of helicopter flying over Aberdeen while the airport is closed can alert them to an incident.
The Emergency Response Team is now in full swing. An open line has been established with the offshore installation manager. Logistics staff are establishing the availability of helicopters and vessels in the area. The Maritime Coastguard Agency has mobilised its helicopter to the installation to assist if necessary. HR staff are examining the Persons on Board list (POB) which is constantly updated to ensure accurate information, should crew be missing.
Kelly requests that the client calls in its Media Responder Team, a team of staff trained by Fifth Ring to take calls from the media and answer basic factual information. The Human Resources duty person also calls in the Relatives Response Team to deal with calls from worried relatives.
The first two are just in place when the BBC places its first call. A pre-approved holding statement is given to the BBC by a media responder and she notes the BBC request for an interview down the line for the morning bulletins. This request is routed through Kelly to the client’s senior management.
The first full media statement is now ready, having been reviewed and approved by the police, the coastguard and the client’s head office. This is fed through to the team of four responders who are now taking a steady stream of calls as the BBC broadcasts its first bulletin.
Offshore personnel have been called to their “muster” stations – pre-agreed positions on the installation where personnel can be counted and held before being either stood down or moved to helicopters and lifeboats. Two personnel are reported missing. Kelly immediately recommends to the duty director that the client’s Crisis Management Team (CMT) be mobilised. The CMT is a team of senior management who will manage the consequences of the emergency as opposed to the operational response. With personnel missing and possibly injured, this team will be required for possible media briefings later in the day.
Kelly calls in Graham MacEwen, Fifth Ring’s crisis management expert, to advise the CMT. He will address reputation management issues with the team and brief the nominated spokesperson for media interviews.
Kelly also puts other Fifth Ring staff on standby – they may have to be dispatched to the heliport should the offshore installation manager (OIM) decide to evacuate crew to “the beach” as it is known. This will give the media visuals and potential interviews and their focus will shift to the incoming evacuees.
News comes through from the installation that the fire has been extinguished and the missing crew found safe and well. The onshore team stands down helicopters, nearby support ships, the Maritime Coastguard Agency and the RAF’s Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC). The media team will stay in place for the time being to deal with calls and to issue a final media release.
It’s now midday and Kelly has already clocked up a full eight-hour day of intensive high-pressure PR. Now the day’s routine work awaits ...
There’s no question that when an emergency situation occurs every second counts. Emergency resources must be mobilised as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Emergency Response Team is highly trained and the media experience of the team is unsurpassable. Being on call is a highly responsible job and the responsibility is great. “However, the immense personal satisfaction of knowing that the situation and the media were dealt with in a professional manner is a real buzz and certainly outweighs the pager going off at 3 a.m.” adds Kelly.