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Coast Guard's PIER delivers the news on Gulf oil spill

Crisis management in an Internet-driven news cycle demands a fast response. So after an explosion rocked a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard created within 24 hours a website to manage inquiries from the media and the public, and now it is a model for how agencies can inform the public during a major disaster.

The Deepwater Horizon Response site, named after the BP-leased oil rig that began spewing oil into the Gulf on April 20, provides news and information about the effort to clean up what some environmentalists fear will become the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

The site shows photos of the cleanup effort and issues numerous news releases daily. On Monday the Coast Guard posted 11 items, including one about officials in the Florida Keys preparing for the oil slick, a shoreline cleanup manual, and a release about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's decision to close certain fishing areas. Information also is categorized by states along the Gulf and by region. Visitors can click on links to social networking sites Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for public discussions and notifications.

The rapid launch and popularity of Deepwater Horizon Response could make it model for how the government communicates to the public during disasters, said Lt. Cmdr. Christopher O'Neil, media relations chief for the Coast Guard. Traffic on the site has been unprecedented, an indication of the public's interest in the disaster, said Gerald Baron, who developed the Web-based system for the disaster communications site that the Coast Guard has been using for nearly a decade. As of Tuesday, the site had recorded 1.3 million page views from 412,000 unique visitors and it averaged 7,123 inquiries from the media and public every four hours.

PIER could handle traffic surges -- including the download of photos and maps, which are measured in gigabytes per day -- because the company hosts Deepwater Horizon Response on server farms on the East and West coasts, said Baron, now executive vice president for communications for O'Brien's Response Management Inc., which acquired PIER Systems Inc. in December 2009.

To keep the Coast Guard's networks from becoming clogged with e-mail traffic about the spill, the service created accounts on Microsoft's public e-mail service Hotmail to respond to queries, O'Neil said.

The site has become a source of information sharing for 61 federal managers working at numerous agencies, including the Defense Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NOAA and the Coast Guard's joint information centers in Louisiana and Alabama, O'Neil said.

PIER allows agency public affairs officers to collaborate because all personnel in a Coast Guard joint information center use the same system rather than the officers' proprietary networks, he said. Officials in the center can review any information before it is released.

When the officials report to a joint information center, the site's webmaster furnishes them with login credentials and sets their permission levels on the system. Only certain personnel have the authority to release information to the public.

The system also tracks inquiries to ensure they are not dropped, and displays the status of each query and how long it takes to answer it.

PIER integrates social media with the crisis management websites, so when a press release is issued, a Tweet also is sent out. The system also has powerful analytical tools, including an electronic clipping service that collects articles published about the response.

O'Neil said he views PIER as a simple but powerful tool that he believes other agencies, such as the Homeland Security Department, should adopt for crisis management. The Health and Human Services Department began using PIER this year to manage its databases of media contacts who deal with HHS and to send out press releases, said William Hall, director of the news division at HHS.

HHS could begin to use the system on its website this month to respond to media inquiries. Hall said he likes the fact that it can be quickly adapted to push out public information on hot topics such as a disease outbreak.

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