An important component of crisis management is response. Response can include several actions such as communication with stakeholders, the public and the government. Appropriate and effective communication can minimize the distribution of incomplete and inaccurate information, reduce speculation and prevent or quell rumors. In fact, studies suggest that the message itself can affect the public’s evaluation of the company and perhaps its reputation and brand.
The two principal components of crisis response are communication and rectification. (Baron, 2010) One: tell us about it; and two: make it right. Item one sounds like it should be simple, right? Wrong! In April 2010, an oil spill disaster in the Gulf tagged BP as the perfect example of how to make a bad situation worse with poor communication. Following is an explanation of recommended goals during crisis communication along with my analysis of how and why BP failed:
An event does not have to involve loss of life or property to present communications challenges. A single piece of bad news reported by the press can have serious repercussions on a business. Whether or not the firm cooperates with the media, if they feel the story is newsworthy, it will be reported. The company’s responsibility is to ensure the information reported is accurate. Being uncooperative can damage a business’ reputation, standing in the community, and credibility with customers and employees.
There are several key communications objectives to keep in mind during any crisis or problem situation:
■Demonstrate that your company is managing the situation effectively and responsibly
■Show concern for those affected
■Maintain the confidence and goodwill of employees, customers and the public
■Guard against negligent and/or inaccurate information
■Restore normal operations as soon as possible
News media can broadcast a story within minutes and it is often difficult to change first impressions once a story is out. It is important to obtain the facts quickly and provide as much information as possible. Stories should be based on fact, not speculation. It is extremely important that one person act as the designated spokesperson. This ensures that the company speaks with one voice, and maintains consistency and accuracy in all communications efforts.
It is beneficial if the company can reasonably predict news media behavior. It is the job of the media to report news. They will obtain information by whatever legal means possible, including background information in their files. Establishing a rapport and contacts with local reporters before a crisis ever occurs can prove invaluable during troubling situations. Good journalists are good investigators and will speak with a variety of sources, monitor emergency communications, and gain access to government records, if necessary.
Making it easy for the media to understand a complex situation can be accomplished through the use of charts, graphs or other visual materials. It will also help ensure that your message gets across accurately. (Seegert, 2008)
Experts recommend that a company be honest, sincere and express concern for those affected. The Exxon Valdez spill of 1989 should have provided enough education on the subject to prevent BP from making the same mistakes. Exxon’s mishandling of the disaster prompted critics who said Exxon should have apologized for the spill, acknowledged responsibility and shown remorse. (Baron, 2010)
Apparently, BP did not get that memo. Instead, BP CEO Tony Hayward repeatedly claimed “it wasn’t our accident” and placed the blame on Transocean, the company that operated the drilling rig. Hayward also described the spill as “relatively tiny” and the environmental impact as “very, very modest”. Even worse was Hayward’s comment on TV that he “wanted his life back”.
This, predictably, received a response from some of the wives of the 11 men who died in the rig blast that they’d “like their husbands back”. And finally, while the oil spill confined fishermen to port in Louisiana and devastated their livelihood, Hayward was photographed aboard his yacht off the Isle of Wight. (Bergin, 2010) While BP did promptly fund TV and radio ads to assure tourists that Gulf Coast beaches were still open in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, (Fletcher, 2010) clearly this displayed more sympathy for loss of profits than for people. I believe this lack of sincerity and absence of concern was a key to BP’s struggle to gain any public support.
When communicating during crisis, the firm’s messages should be transparent and reassuring. Instead, a major story is released by Newsweek accusing BP, along with local and federal officials, of blocking access to the sites where the effects of the spill are most visible. In short, BP was accused of controlling what reporters see and prohibiting them from documenting the impact of the spill. (Philips, 2010) This behavior on the part of BP was in direct opposition to the goal of transparency and reassurance. In fact, it promoted widespread public opinion that BP may be hiding something.
In order to gain the public’s trust, a company and its spokesperson must be knowledgeable and credible. Once you have lost trust and credibility, your ability to get your message across is critically hampered. Evidence was discovered, often from BP’s own documents, that it had ignored previous warnings about the rig and that it knowingly chose the riskier of two options, partly for financial reasons.
(Pew Research, 2010) BP also failed to tackle its image as a serial safety and environmental offender. U.S. regulators found that a 2005 refinery blast that killed 15 workers and 2006 Alaska pipeline leaks were all a result of BP cost-cutting. When a mid-May congressional committee highlighted its record, BP insisted that it had changed, but could provide no description of its improvements. (Bergin, 2010) Once again, more evidence for the public to be suspicious.
Since media and government are likely providing (and hopefully corroborating) crisis information to the public, both communicating well with journalists and cooperating with government is essential. (Baron, 2010) Instead of following this rule, BP released information that grossly underestimated the amount of oil leaking from its well. Almost immediately, scientists challenged this estimate. But BP robustly defended it.
A government panel said the flow rate was up to 10 times greater and, shortly thereafter, internal BP documents were found and released that showed BP had itself calculated leak rates of up to 20 times more than was originally reported. (Bergin, 2010) No matter which source had the numbers right, once again the public has reason to doubt BP’s honest. Regarding the leak, the public expressed far more trust in the news media than either the federal government or BP (Pew Research, 2010).
This is not good news for neither BP nor its CEO Hayward, which emerged as the antagonist and the villain, respectively. There was plenty for the press to scrutinize; being behind the spill in the first place; how its executives handled the aftermath; honesty in estimating the size of the spill; response to Gulf residents along with the attitude of CEO Tony Hayward. Negative press on the Obama White House paled in comparison next to BP’s reported blunders. (Pew Research, 2010)
What caused BP to make such drastic and obvious missteps? Two explanations present themselves.
One probability is their lack of experience in the United States. Despite unlimited resources and a media savvy team of executives, all had only limited or no experience in the U.S. Hayward made this worse by choosing another Brit as his PR adviser. U.S. executives say it is difficult for European executives to understand the combative political landscape in the U.S. They failed to adequately gauge how much backlash there would be. (Bergin, 2010) I believe that political risks were drastically underestimated by BP and this shortcoming may be partially responsible for their poor communication during the crisis.
Another possible catalyst for BP’s errors is a tougher media in the United States. Media is certainly more hostile in the U.S., and BP is unfamiliar with this approach. Television reporting during the spill was particularly challenging for the firm. This blunder may be explained partly because BP is more geared toward dealing with financial reporters, whose readers care less about snappy sound bites. (Bergin, 2010)
British press has always been relatively kind to BP, especially since the company is a global success and a major source of pride and success in the eyes of their country and its leaders. Even now, BP still gets relatively positive press in the U.K. (Bergin, 2010)
Odds are that your firm will not have to deal with a crisis the size and scope of the Gulf Coast oil spill. Nevertheless, here are a few lessons learned from BP PR strategy to add to your own crisis communication preparedness kit:
1. Prepare spokespersons to be spokespersons. The Boy Scouts’ motto – “Be Prepared” – should be the mantra of your organization’s spokespersons. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward did not represent the company well in interviews. Since crises happen unexpectedly, spokespersons should be prepared at all times for media interviews. Identify potential crisis scenarios in advance and then train spokespersons on how to conduct themselves during interviews and important messages to remember. Spokespersons are a company’s most public presence during a crisis, so make sure they look and sound good when talking with the media.
2. Manage your audiences’ expectations. When BP’s oil rig exploded in April, the company did very little to manage anyone’s expectations about stopping the oil spill and cleaning up the mess — whether Gulf Coast residents, the White House, Congress or the American public. As a result, it seemed no one really knew what was happening – and public outrage grew. When communicating during crises, we must tailor talking points and materials to relate reasonable, achievable next steps.
These messages will help keep your audience informed and prepared while keeping their expectations realistic. If BP was more measured when discussing options for dealing with the leak and the recovery process, they would have given the impression they were more in control of the situation and eased the resulting frustration with their response.
3. Listen first, and then communicate where it makes sense. BP’s attempts to manage the crisis by buying Internet search terms related to the oil spill or trying to shutdown a BP Twitter parody profile were not the best use of PR resources. Instead, they should have taken a page out of Toyota’s crisis communication playbook: listen before you speak. BP PR strategy fails to listen to important audiences not only for responding to this crisis, but also for repairing their brand.
During crises, communicators should devise methods — whether formal or informal or online or in-person — to first listen to the needs and perspectives of your audience and then determine where, when and how you will communicate with them. While it’s good to start this practice at the beginning of crises, it is never too late for mid-course corrections and to start doing more listening than talking. (Borde, 2010)
Granted, this disaster gave BP’s communications team a very steep mountain to climb and there is a long road ahead for communicators involved in the Gulf Coast oil spill. However, it’s never too late to admit errors in judgment and attempt to communicate differently during a crisis.
BP would have faced public anger and political pressure no matter how well it responded with communication throughout the disaster in the Gulf. The question is: could it have handled the situation better? The answer is a resounding, yes. I hope that other firms learn many important lessons from this disaster. They should learn that preparing for a world where things only go right is extremely dangerous; and that downplaying your mistakes is, well, a big mistake.
Baron, D.P. (2010). Business and Its Environment (Sixth Edition), Chapter 5
Bergin, T. (2010). Analysis: BP PR blunders carry high political cost. Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USTRE65S3JL20100629
Borde, C. (2010) BP's Gulf Coast Oil Spill PR Blunders Offer Crisis Response Lessons. InSites, Vanguard Communications http://www.vancomm.com/insites/2010/06/bps-gulf-coast-oil-spill-pr-blunders-offer-crisis-response-lessons/
Pew Research (2010), How the Media Covered the Gulf Oil Spill Disaster. Pew Research Center, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1707/media-coverage-analysis-gulf-oil-spill-disaster , Public Trusts Media for Oil Spill News More than Feds, BP. Pew Research Center, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1621/trust-information-oil-spill-news-media-federal-govern...
Philips, M. (2010). BP’s Photo Blockade of the Gulf Oils Spill. Newsweek, http://www.newsweek.com/2010/05/26/the-missing-oil-spill-photos.print.html
Reuters (2010). Gulf beaches open despite oil spill – BP-funded ads. http://www.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USN118816620100511
Seegert, L. (2008). Crisis Communications Tips: Stay in Control, Liz Seegert/Marketing Communications, http://www.seegertmktg.com/article_archive/crisiscommtips.html