The Brown Ocean Effect: How Extreme Weather Can Explain Crisis Communications

By Bill Coletti, CEO, Kith

Critical Takeaways:

·      It is a critical error to assume a crisis situation will lessen in severity over time.

·      Good communication strategists are always prepared for the next shoe to drop.

·      In crisis, an overarching narrative is being developed, and its up to communicators to pay attention to the bigger picture and ensure the narrative remains neutral or becomes positive.

Brown Ocean Effect and Crisis Communications

What does the Brown Ocean Effect have in common with crisis communications?


Tropical Storm Bill has recently made news by striking the Texas Gulf Coast and moving north, weakening as it traveled over land into Texas and on toward Oklahoma, and the Ozarks. It brought flooding to areas already devastated by heavy rains. Such storms typically weaken after striking land due to a sudden drop in the available moisture from below. But a theory known as the Brown Ocean Effect may offer an alternative pattern.


The Brown Ocean Theory proposes that if sufficient water is found in the ground over which a tropical storm travels, it may not weaken, but draw sufficient moisture from the ground, the “brown ocean,” to instead actually grow stronger.


Before T.S. Bill, the Gainesville, Texas area experienced nearly its total annual average rainfall in just 60 days. With a great deal of water still pooled on the ground, this gave rise to questions about whether or not Bill would weaken over land. While Bill did, in fact weaken, the brown ocean theory may give rise to an analogy worth exploring in crisis communications planning.


Often in crisis management, a situation arises–that is, it makes landfall–producing a significant immediate impact in the affected communities. Then it fades in intensity as it moves further inland. Accepted practice in crisis situations involves managing the initial impact of the story with durable statements and strategies. These tools help affected persons survive the initial impact and live on as the situation decreases in intensity.


News items and the social media responses to them have brought to our attention the fact that, just as the Brown Ocean Theory suggests, these stories have actually gained additional traction. We see this with data breeches, for example. One singular data breech event is managed in context, but if another happens and then another, it changes the over-arching narrative because the “ground” has been saturated with data breech. Each response is less unique and more broad-based because multiple companies have been involved over a period of time.


Good communication strategists are always prepared for the next shoe to drop. What we are seeing in this analogy to the Brown Ocean Effect, is that they should be equally concerned about shoes that dropped earlier, softening the landscape and permitting issues to reorganize and strengthen.


How does the Brown Ocean Effect impact your crisis communications planning?

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