J Term in New Orleans

During January 2011, 12 J-Term students in the course “Environmental Communications: Lessons Learned from the BP Oil Spill” will travel with Nina Flournoy, senior lecturer of communication studies in Meadows School of the Arts, on a 10-day journey to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to examine the communication strategies surrounding the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history

Myths exposed about Gulf spill

Jessica.jpgAn update from Jessica, a senior CCPA major and art history minor:

The biggest lesson I learned from our trip to the Gulf is that just because a story makes headlines, doesn’t mean the information is true. As a society (and I admit being guilty of this) we have a bad habit of taking what the media and “experts” say at face value.

But as most spokespersons who handled communication efforts surrounding the BP oil spill admitted to our group, no one was absolutely certain of anything! How many deaths after the explosion? How much oil actually spewed from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig from April 20 to July 15, 2010? Is the seafood safe to eat? Are the beaches contaminated, and is it safe to swim?

During the spill, the media provided so many conflicting answers to these questions, and few of us knew whom to trust. Between BP, the federal government, the media, businesses, nonprofit organizations and experts in related fields, accuracy was hard to come by. And today, nine months after the explosion and subsequent spill, many uncertainties remain. What really happened to all that oil? What are the long-term effects on the ecosystem, the wildlife? What are the health risks?

Our class set out to look at the nuances of communicating the facts of the spill in this era of instant, 24/7 news and social media. But in the process, we also learned many facts about the spill, the fragile condition of the Gulf Coast and the Louisiana wetlands, the significance of the oil industry to the economy in the region, and the character of the people who live, work and preserve the land. Following is what I consider to be a modest summary of the information from our trip. But first, here are three myths that I believed prior to the trip:

Myth 1: Oil has tainted the Gulf, making it a distasteful and hazardous place to visit.

Myth 2: Seafood is unsafe to eat.

Myth 3: Gulf Coast states blame the oil industry and favor the drilling moratorium.

I feel one of the biggest misunderstandings is that the oceans and beaches along the Gulf are still dirty and contaminated with oil. Tourism was hit hard as a result of the public’s fear that the region was spoiled and unsafe. Alabama beaches remained oil-free for nearly two months after the spill, but visitors canceled vacation plans and tourism plummeted after headlines incorrectly reported that oil would hit the shores.

We learned from Herb Malone, CEO and President of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, that tourism for summer 2010 was predicted to hit an all-time high. Despite the optimistic estimate, the region lost close to $100 million as a result of fewer visitors. Like Alabama, the economies in Grand Isle, La., and Ocean Springs, Miss., (where we also visited) suffered from a loss in tourism.

Based on conflicting reports, I wasn’t sure what to expect when we visited the coast. What I found were the clearest blue waters and whitest sand beaches that I have ever seen in the United States. If I could emphasize only one point from our entire trip, it would be that the Gulf is beautiful and in need of vacationers now more than ever.

The issue over whether seafood from the Gulf is safe to eat is still highly controversial and widely misunderstood. Until we met oyster distributor Sal Sunseri, owner of P&J Oysters, which has been in business in New Orleans for 135 years, we all thought that oil ruined oysters in the Gulf. Sunseri explained that the Mississippi River was flooded with freshwater to prevent the oil from moving even further into the Gulf. Oysters live in what are called estuaries, composed of a combination of freshwater from the Mississippi and saltwater from the Gulf. By flooding huge amounts of freshwater into the estuaries, the balance was disrupted and the oysters died.

True, in some areas oil did in fact taint the seafood, but the strict testing method is making sure no tainted seafood reaches stores and restaurants. Several speakers, including John Deveney, President of Deveney Communication, explained that increased regulations and testing have made Gulf seafood the “most tested and safest” product in America. Despite Deveney’s assertion, many people are still apprehensive. The economy has not only been hit hard by the slump in tourism, but also from the drop in the seafood industry.

After hearing how much the seafood industry has suffered since the spill, I made it a point to eat it on a regular basis throughout the trip and ordered it nearly every time we ate out. It was wonderful. In my opinion, if restaurants can serve it, I can eat it!

I was stunned that practically no one we talked to condemned the oil industry. In fact, almost everyone agreed that oil was an integral part of life in the Gulf region, particularly in Louisiana. However, they all agree that stricter safety regulations must be imposed to prevent future spills.

Several speakers described the relationship between their states and the oil industry as symbiotic. The oil industry has provided employment for millions of men and women since drilling began off the coast. People don’t have to agree with the politics surrounding the issue, but few can argue against the fact that the economy depends on the oil. Louisiana fishermen, shrimpers, and oyster harvesters often work for oil companies during their off-season. It is also typical for one spouse to work in the seafood business, while the other works in the oil trade. Since the spill, both industries have come to a halt, leaving thousands unemployed.

Nearly everyone we talked to expressed frustration toward the moratorium and seemed eager to begin drilling again. There is no doubt that higher regulations and safer practices must be enforced to prevent spills of this extreme in the future, but the business cannot be stopped. It is important for all Americans to understand the culture of the region and realize that the livelihood of society depends on the strategic balance between the people and the industry. It is unrealistic to think that drilling can just stop. One cannot survive without the other, so now the people in the Gulf states must strive to find an ideal balance.

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The big picture

An update from Nina Flournoy:

flournoy.jpgIn this TED film author Naomi Klein talks about her recent trip out to sea with scientists exploring the impact of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico. She touches on questions running through almost every conversation our class had with academics, nonprofits, wetlands experts and those charged with protecting the Gulf coastline. When is the risk too high? What will it take to prompt real change? How can we continue to accept such risks with our precious resources?

As our SMU van hummed along the Gulf Coast, students were astonished to learn the extent of the environmental damage caused by oil companies over the years. Even though students prepared for the trip by reading articles, browsing the Internet and watching videos in class, they never expected to see whole towns covered over in water, where people resided only 20 years ago, or the stark contrast of a beautiful beach sunset against a backdrop of giant oil rigs. So it came as no surprise that as we neared the end of our trip, the questions students posed to guest speakers became tougher, more pointed, and often started with the word “why.”

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Feeding the Gulf Coast economy (by feeding ourselves)

Esther.jpg An update from Esther, a sophomore majoring in communication studies and management science:

Much of the culture along the Gulf Coast revolves around food. Locals and tourists alike enjoy their seafood fried, grilled, and raw. Especially in New Orleans, mom-and-pop restaurant menus feature fried food, Creole fare, and gumbo, each with a different flair. Because of this reliance on food, particularly seafood, area restaurateurs and seafood distributors have been hard hit by the BP oil spill. And even though extensive testing indicates that Gulf seafood is safe for the most part, uncertainty surrounds the issue of Gulf seafood safety, resulting in lost revenue for restaurants, seafood suppliers and the tourist industry.

Why? Most residents along the coast stretching from Louisiana to Alabama point to media coverage of the oil spill. Overstated estimates of the oil damage not only halted the purchase and consumption of seafood, but also adversely affected the number of tourists in places like Gulf Shores, Ala., last summer.

Experts like John Deveney, of Deveney Communication, which handles the PR for the New Orleans’ Office of Tourism, says the seafood is the “safest consumable product in North America,” given its rigorous testing. The water is tested. The fishermen test their boats and equipment before they leave, while they fish and when they dock. The fish are tested at the processing plants, by the suppliers, and finally at the restaurants. However, the general perception, according to Deveney, is that the food is “unsafe, unaffordable, and limited.”

Perception, or rather, misperception has been a major issue throughout our journey to understanding the communication efforts surrounding the BP oil spill.

Researchers and scientists continue to study the possible repercussions of the oil, current and future. By all accounts, it will be years before we understand the real impact of oil on marine life. Therefore, it’s reasonable to question whether or not the seafood is safe for consumption.

Nevertheless, the majority of our group enjoyed the seafood every chance possible, and, thus far, there have been no incidents. We may not be official test subjects, but 13 out of 13 sounds like a decent statistic.

Check out some of the food we enjoyed on our trip.

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Coming to an end

An update from Stevie Rae, a junior communications studies major with a minor in psychology:

Our trip is coming to an end as we start our last day here in Gulf Shores, AL. It’s hard to believe we’ve been on this journey together only for eight days. We have been so many places, seen so much, and heard from so many people that it feels like it’s been a month already!

Coming into this class I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew we were going to be learning about the Oil Spill, but I had no idea what that involved. This has been the best experience I have had since coming to SMU. There’s something about seeing something with your own eyes and hearing it directly from the people affected that makes the impact and the learning experience so much more real.

After spending eight days immersed in the culture and environment of the people effected by the BP oil spill, I can now say that it takes so much more than reading about something in a book or a news article to truly comprehend what has been going on. If more classes were to take this approach to learning, I believe students would get a lot more out of it than cramming for an exam or spending hours reading out of a book. It’s so refreshing to take a course that throws all the traditional learning methods out the window and makes students responsible for their own experience, pushing them to find the truth and come up with their own conclusions about what they see.

I think I can speak on behalf of the entire class when I say we will take this experience with us long after we graduate. We have not only learned from the speakers and from our observations but we also have learned from each other. I wish we had more time; I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what people here have to offer. I hope we have made even a small difference, and I know they have made a huge impact on us.

So thanks, New Orleans, Grande Isle, Biloxi, Ocean Springs and Gulf Shores! We’ll miss you and your good ol’ Southern hospitality!

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The silver lining

Stevie.jpg An update from Stevie Rae, a junior communications studies major with a minor in psychology:

• 5.4 million barrels of oil discharged into the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Oil Spill.
• 665 miles of coastline contaminated by oil
• 57,539 square miles of Gulf waters remain closed to fishing
• 311 Olympic-size swimming pools could be filled with the oil that leaked from the Deepwater Horizon well (Learn more from the Department of Energy.)

With statistics like these coming day after day, and the oil spill featured as the top news story for months, it’s hard to stay positive. But the people in the Gulf Coast have an optimism and sense of hope that are truly inspiring. Listening to speaker after speaker from New Orleans to Mississippi to Alabama, a pattern emerges in their message: No matter how bad it gets, no matter what the unknown brings, stay positive. Everyone anticipates a silver lining.

In New Orleans: Anne Milling with Women of the Storm remained positive in the midst of all the negativity coming from the media. She made lemonade by forming a nonprofit with a group of women to show Congress that people from every state still cared. The silver lining for Women of the Storm and so many people we have talked to and heard from since being down here is that the oil spill has brought a new light to the massive amount of wetland loss that is occurring in the Gulf and to ways in which the community and government can and should get involved.

In Mississippi: The Sun Herald made it a decision not only to be transparent, but also to tell the good as well as the bad news. They wrote about locals going to parties on the river instead of the beach and about how the people of this area weren’t going to just hide in their homes, they were going to make lemonade!

Even restaurants in the area that were at a huge loss for business joined in on the optimism …

In Alabama: Johnny Fisher, the manager of LuLu’s, believes that the secret to dealing with the spill was optimism – always being transparent, believing in what they do, and constantly wearing a smile. They would say, sure, we have oil on the beach, but that’s not everything there is to do in Gulf Shores.

It was a great opportunity for families to show their children the importance of volunteerism and support. They would say, “These are your beaches – don’t turn your backs on them.” Lucy, the owner of LuLu’s, created the phrase “One love, one ocean” and sells T-shirts to raise money for the Gulf.

Johnny said that the most important thing to have when going through hard times is faith, optimism, and positive energy. He believes this disaster and the manner in which LuLu’s has dealt with it has made them even stronger as a company.

It’s hard to say what will happen in the future as a result of the spill, but there is always a silver lining. The key is to remain positive in a sea of negativity, because the truth is, the beaches are clear, the water is gorgeous, and there are fish and shrimp still out there that are safe to eat. The fishermen are out fishing, and the locals are ready for tourism to be back to where it was pre-spill. What they need is a little help from you!

They are encouraging people to come back down, and that is exactly what we need to do. The best gift you can give the Gulf is your company. They are ready to welcome you with open arms whenever you are ready to see for yourselves just how well they have recovered from the spill.

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Social media: Friend or foe?

Taylor.jpg An update from Taylor, a sophomore communication studies major:

Communicating during a crisis in the past 10 years has drastically changed. Smart phones, texting, Facebook and Twitter provide opportunities not available in the past. The benefits from these advances in technology create a world of two-way communication, boundless spread of knowledge – and all of it done within a manner of seconds. Sounds pretty fantastic, doesn’t it?

On an average day, yes, social media is amazing and helpful for its daily users. When ignored, though, social media use (or more of a lack of use) can cause extensive problems.

A perfect example of this is British Petroleum’s Twitter account. During our meeting, John Deveney of Deveney Communication shared some surprising information. Before the oil spill, BP had a total of 52 tweets in a year (this means one tweet each week). This seemed appropriate since the company didn’t necessarily need to sell its product. But here is where the surprise came: How many tweets do you think BP had after the spill? Five a minute? No. Nine a day? No. It posted one a week as if nothing had changed.

By not embracing social media as a friend and utilizing it to its full potential before a crisis, BP allowed social media to become a foe in its time of need. Due to lack of communication via social media vehicles, satirical Twitter accounts criticizing BP cropped up, causing more confusion and reputation damage for BP.

This missed opportunity, in my opinion, was the biggest communication mistake during the spill. BP could have created good will and shaped the story by just utilizing their Twitter account. It wouldn’t have taken much for the corporation to ask the department that it currently employed to up the number of tweets being posted each day.

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Rainbow at the end of the storm

An update from Stevie Rae, a junior communications studies major with a minor in psychology:

I’m sitting here in our beautiful beach house in Grand Isle, LA, where we finally have a chance to let these past few days sink in. In the last three days I have learned so much more than I would have learned in an entire semester of class. There’s something about being able to see it for myself and to be able to listen to these people and hear their stories that can’t be matched in a classroom.

I have not only developed a love for the city of New Orleans and the optimism of its people, but I have also developed a much greater understanding of what is really going on in the Gulf and how the people who have lived here for years and even decades feel about how the BP oil spill is being handled and what their thoughts are for the future.

We have been spending a lot of time simply soaking up the culture, and the overwhelming theme I have noticed is the optimism of the people here. You would think under such devastating circumstances it would be easy for people to focus on the negative, but I’ve learned that after going through so much from hurricanes and natural disasters, they have this sense of being able to come back from it. They have an attitude of “life goes on” – and there’s always a silver lining. These people are strong, motivated and optimistic about their future. Sometimes that’s the most important part of recovering after the disasters they have been through.

NO-fountain.jpg I think part of our job as students in keeping the story alive is to spread the word. To make people aware of what is going on down here and to inform them of the facts. It’s hard for people to understand the impact of disasters such as Katrina and the BP oil spill unless they come down and see it for themselves. But through our blogs, Facebook posts, pictures and videos we can help bring the coast to the rest of the country.

Can’t wait to help make a difference and keep the story alive.

In photo: While taking a walk in Audubon Park, we came across a rainbow in the fountain. I think this photo illustrates the attitude of the people here. There’s always a rainbow at the end of a storm.

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The trouble with tourism

Bella.jpg An update from Bella, a senior CCPA major:

NOLA1.jpg We’ve been talking about everything from environmental issues to the impact on seafood, but tourism is something that has been damaged just as extensively and deserves the same amount of attention and concern in the aftermath of the oil spill.

While the BP spill directly impacted the environment and land of the coastal states, it has also affected tourism. Dirty beaches, fears over seafood safety and negative media reports all contribute to the downturn in Gulf-area tourism.

BP stepped up to address this matter by providing a $70 million tourism grant for the coastal states to use in the recovery process. Although on the surface this may seem like a responsible gesture on BP’s part, states like Louisiana argue that the money has been divided unfairly.

While Florida did not receive nearly the damage that other states suffered, BP granted that state a total of $52 million to boost tourism. Louisiana received only $45 million, while Alabama and Mississippi each received $15 million. Granted that Florida’s tourism produces six times the revenue of Louisiana’s tourism, but the fact is, the negative media focus wasn’t aimed at Florida’s beaches and cities, compared to Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. Those coastal states with the most negative press will have the most difficult time bouncing back financially. And Louisiana, which suffered enormous loss since Hurricane Katrina, was just beginning to bring tourists back to its cities when the oil spill struck.

New Orleans-based Deveney Communications has worked with the city of New Orleans to revive tourism through media campaigns focusing on successful progress in New Orleans despite the last two disasters. The firm’s specific messages center on music, cuisine, outdoor experiences and Louisiana’s culture. Special rates for hotel accommodations have been advertised, and images of life and culture in New Orleans have been promoted through the “Reel Louisiana” campaign. This includes a website that allows anyone to post videos and pictures of their experiences in Louisiana. Despite the strong reaction to the campaign, there is still no guarantee that tourists will come down to visit New Orleans.

Debatably, the Gulf coast spokespeople claim their region has suffered more damage to its economy because businesses depend almost solely on the tourism. There is about 32 miles of beautiful beaches that brought in over 4.6 million guests in 2009. These guests spent an average of $2.3 billion, which helps pay for more than 40,000 travel-related jobs.

When the oil spill hit in April, it also hit the tourism market at the worst possible time before the summer rush. The Office of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism estimated the area recorded a 47.5 percent decrease in lodging and a 27.5 percent decrease in retail sales in the summer of 2010. The most challenging aspect was, and continues to be, public misperception. Herbert Malone, the CEO of Gulf Shores Tourism, explained that in light of the situation, the only way to earn the public trust so the tourists will know it is safe and clear of oil is to be honest and transparent, even when the news is bad.

Despite disasters, natural or manmade, cities such as New Orleans remain resilient. But they insist that the best way to help in the aftermath of something like the oil spill is to come and visit. Leaders along the Gulf Coast concur. Put simply, the best way to help these popular tourist destinations during the recovery is to stay in their hotels and enjoy their attractions. Be a tourist.

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It’s raining, it’s pouring

Taylor.jpg An update from Taylor, a sophomore communication studies major:

Well, we had a little change in plans due to whether conditions. We just got back to New Orleans from our side trip to Grand Isle, and it is raining cats and dogs outside.

NO3.jpg Despite the rain, we piled into the van and went to a quick lunch meeting with Kurt Fromherz. He provided great information about what really went on during the spill, and what it was like to be a media adviser to a somewhat controversial parish president.

What I found most interesting is how almost all the information in his presentation was completely different from our first meeting with the Coast Guard. With every issue, he had one perspective, and the Coast Guard presented another. This situation shows exactly what the issue is. There is no open communication between all groups involved.

It’s no one party’s fault, but the lack of clear and transparent communication among all parties will result in arguments about the small things and not the larger issue. In the end, isn’t that what the end goal is?

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The seafood misperception

Bella.jpg An update from Bella, a senior CCPA major:

NOLA2.jpg After just a few days, we have already learned so much about the oil spill, the Gulf Coast and the seafood industry. The information we’ve received is vital to the understanding of this situation, but the public is unaware of the truths hidden behind images of oil-covered birds and burning oil in the Gulf.

Although scientists say we won’t know the effects of the oil spill for years to come, we do understand a few key points that the media have misconstrued to the public. The first is that Gulf Coast seafood supply is not toxic or polluted by oil. The Gulf shore has some of the strictest regulations for seafood. And the regulation has increased even more since the oil spill. This has reduced the risk of eating bad seafood to a fraction of a percent.

True, oyster beds were destroyed in great numbers, but this it is not due to any contact with the oil. Ironically, oysters died from too much fresh water, used to diminish the oil flow. Oysters thrive in beds with a specific balance of saltwater from the Gulf and fresh water from the Mississippi River. Even a slight offset of this balance will cause the oysters to die, which is what happened when fresh water was used to keep Gulf water from flowing into the marshes where the oysters grow.

Despite the uncertainties of the consequences of the spill, we need to make sure communication is clear and direct so that everyone understands what is going on. Remember that news stations thrive on heart-wrenching images, so they do not always focus on the reality of the situation. Stay informed by reading news from reliable organizations. Support the recovery of the Gulf by eating seafood and visiting the coast.

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