Voice of Reason:
LSU's Ed Overton Named Communicator of the Year by the Public Relations Association of Louisiana
PRAL recognizes Overton for his contributions to public understanding of the BP oil spill
For most, retirement means stepping away from the hectic schedule of work to enjoy personal hobbies and spend more time doing what you love. But for LSU's Ed Overton, retiring actually meant revving up already considerable contributions to the field of environmental science though both scientific research and active communication with the public. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, and the world became aware of the human tragedy and environmental impact, Overton became the epicenter of media attention.
"I was a bit surprised to find myself inundated by such media attention. It seemed like every media outlet around the world was really concerned about the spill and interested in knowing what was happening in Louisiana," said Overton. "I tried to present a balanced yet accurate picture of the events as they unfolded and explain the complicated facets of the spill in a fashion that was understandable to the general public."
Overton played a pivotal role in communications relating to the BP oil spill, giving hundreds of interviews for local, national and international news outlets and even appearing as a guest on the "Late Show with David Letterman."
He began his interview by presenting Letterman with a sample of oil collected from the surface of the Gulf. Letterman and the audience were surprised when the oil wouldn't pour, leading Letterman to pound the bottle several times on his desk.
"This is the way it comes out of the seabed?" Letterman asked, highlighting the viscosity of the petroleum.
During the nearly 12-minute interview, the discussion ranged from methods of fixing the leak to the environmental ramifications the spill presents to the Gulf region.
"It was a great honor and great pleasure to be asked to appear on the Letterman show for a serious discussion of the oil spill. I'm particularly pleased that Dave took two segments to discuss this disaster and its implications for Louisiana and the Gulf Coast," said Overton.
In addition to the Letterman show, Overton appeared on dozens of national and international broadcasts, including CBS, NBC, "ABC Evening News" and "Early Morning" shows, Fox Business News, MSNBC, CNN, the "Rachel Maddow Show," "Anderson Cooper 360," "Good Morning America," the "Campbell Brown Show," NPR, BBC and many more. He was also quoted in hundreds of prestigious print media outlets, including the New York Times, National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, Newsweek and others.
"I really feel it's important to be able to communicate science to people in a way that they can understand and process," said Overton. "That's the reason I committed myself to doing so many media interviews. The oil spill impacted so many people along the northern Gulf Coast, and was of great interest to people around the world. They needed to know what was going on. Jargon doesn't cut it – you need explain things in a way that that reaches everyone and accurately reflects what's happening in our Gulf."
Overton has most recently been named Communicator of the Year by the Public Relations Association of Louisiana, or PRAL. The award is given to individuals who have demonstrated a high degree of skill in communicating effectively through the use of one or more of the mass media during the calendar year.
"I am deeply honored to be chosen as Louisiana Communicator of the Year in 2010 by PRAL, especially considering the distinguished list of past recipients of this honor," said Overton. "Our state has endured a great tragedy, but Louisiana and the Gulf region will survive and recover from the spill."
He received a standing ovation at the award ceremony, where he was thanked for a job well done. He joked about one of his early interviews with the New York Times that went viral.
"My life has not been the same since," he laughed.
He described having four to five national TV appearances in one day. Sometimes, satellite trucks would be parked in his front yard as early as 4 a.m.
"I have to thank my wife for keeping me going through this whole situation," he said. "Sometimes my home phone would be ringing while my cell phone was going off and my inbox was full, and she was the one who helped me to make sense of it all."
He noted that LSU, as the state's flagship institution, was in a position to offer help and perspective when the tragedy struck due to the sheer amount of expertise in the field.
"It's a real honor to represent LSU and Louisiana in this way. We are not out of the woods yet, but we are moving past this," he said.
In addition to serving the public through media appearances, Overton has also testified before the federal government several times about the impact of the oil on the environment. Considered a key player in the international research and response field, he appeared before the Presidential Commission on the Oil Spill and the Oversight Subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on the use of oil dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, among others.
"Ed knows not only how to communicate clearly to the media and the public, he also gets how important it is to respond to reporters' requests in a timely way," said Dean of the School of the Coast & Environment Christopher D'Elia. "I have seen him juggle within a 15-minute timespan interviews on his office phone line, on his cell phone and with a live TV crew. Through all this he kept a smile on his face. I have never in my long career seen any faculty member do a better job in responding to unrelenting requests from such a broad spectrum of journalists from diverse print and broadcasting outlets."
Overton received his bachelor's degree and his doctorate from the University of Alabama. His research interests include understanding the fates and distributions of hydrocarbons following an oil spill, the environmental chemistry of hazardous chemicals and the detection of environmental pollutants at the site of sample collection. He has been active in understanding the fate and effects of petroleum hydrocarbons in marine environments from oil spills since the 1978 well blowout at the U.S. Department of Energy Strategic Petroleum Reserve West Hackberry site, followed by the Amoco Cadiz Tanker wreck and the IXTOC 1 blowout in 1979, the Exxon Valdez wreck in 1989 and currently the Deepwater Horizon fire and blowout in 2010.
Overton held the Clairborne Chair in Environmental Toxicology and Air Quality prior to his retirement, was the 1996 Louisiana Technologist of the Year and was honored as an LSU Distinguished Faculty member in 2008. He is married to Susan J. Overton, and they have two children, both LSU graduates.