How BP should’ve handled its crisis situation

Crisis situations for any company should be avoided at all costs; however, because of how quickly information spreads across the internet a company can find itself scrambling to protect its positive brand image in a short period of time when faced with a crisis.

According to Regina Luttrell’s book, Social Media: How To Engage, Share, and Connect “The reputation of any brand can easily be tarnished in mere moments because an active public now has the ability to take a stance, make a statement, and judge that brand based on how the company chooses to address (or not address) the crisis at hand” (p. 138). Luttrell also mentioned that 28 percent of reported crises spread internationally within an hour and over two-thirds spread within the first twenty-four hours (p. 137).

BP, or British Petroleum, is a multinational oil and gas company that failed to effectively handle a crisis situation during the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Konrad Palubicki,from Edelman Digital in Seattle, Washington, developed the five stages of crisis management in the digital age (p. 138):

  • Prepare in advance

    Attribution: Regina Luttrell 
  • Isolate the origin
  • Evaluate the impact
  • Mitigate the crisis
  • Learn from the crisis.

Always have a plan

Companies and organizations should have a crisis management plan and crisis management team in place to handle pre-crisis, crisis, and post-crisis situations. According to the article “Crisis Management and Communications” by the Institute for Public Relations, while a crisis management plan is a tool that gives general guidelines on how to manage a crisis, it is still greatly beneficial. A management team is necessary in assigning a social media manager to deliver messages, maintain consistency, creating pre-draft messages and templates to use in saving time. These messages help ensure that a crisis team can respond to a crisis almost immediately, plugging in additional information into the template depending on the crisis.

Don’t act without a PR team

Then-BP CEO Tony Hayward slashed funding for a public relations team, mostly relying on outside consultants and rookies for advice on how to deal with this crisis. They let Hayward continue to make daily gaffes despite repeated insensitive comments and his lack of understanding of the public he was addressing. BP had no public relations strategy and failed to communicate three key messages including accountability, concern and a plan. In an attempt to save Hayward’s image, they released an ad saying, “We will get this done, we will make this right” which gave the message that the public should just trust the company to fix the problem despite their PR disaster thus far.

BP’s biggest mistake was their lack of a PR and government relations department due to budget costs. They didn’t have a plan, a management team, or even a social media plan to convey their key messages in one voice.

Steal the thunder and commiserate

The initial response to any crisis should include haste, accuracy and consistency. According to IPR a concept stolen from the field of law includes “stealing thunder,” in which a company identifies a flaw or discloses negative information about a crisis. This may seem counter-intuitive, but when a company is the first to disclose negative information it lessens the blow compared to if news media is the first to report negative information. Not disclosing information creates the impression that a company doesn’t care about the public or its stakeholders.

Information should be disclosed within hours of the initial crisis. News media outlets revolve around timeliness and immediacy when reporting stories, as they try to beat their competition. While a company has the advantage of being aware of a crisis when it happens, it also must compete with the news when revealing information to the general public.


On another note, because the media is looking for information pertaining to the crisis they can be utilized to spread a company’s message to the general public quickly and effectively. If news outlets aren’t engaged by the company, there are plenty of other parties that will be happy to talk to them; this is dangerous because they may give false information that may be published in an article, making the crisis harder to handle.

A concern for the public and a certain obligation to the truth should have been implemented by BP, but they denied the existence of huge plumes of oil in the deep water. The company tried to cover up the seriousness of the crisis and its inability to fix the problem, which caused the situation to spiral into one of the biggest crises that the company ever faced, its reputation damaged permanently.

Assign the right spokesperson

When addressing the public, the next question is trying to ascertain who should be the one to address them. While CEO’s may be effective in the use of online videos, they may also miss the mark; an example of this is the CEO of Domino’s Pizza apologizing to its customers in regard to employees tampering with food. Many people were critical of his delivery and missed the overall message that he attempted to convey to his audience.

The news conference that then-BP CEO Tony Hayward gave after the BP Oil Spill Crisis was a disaster; he came wearing a starch-white shirt, appeared unsympathetic, declared the accident wasn’t the company’s fault and made them look arrogant. Hayward’s response in an interview of, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption this caused their lives, and there’s no one who wants this thing over with more than I do, I’d like my life back,” made BP’s image look even worse.

BP needed a spokesperson, as it’s apparent that CEO’s aren’t always the best choice when addressing a crisis situation. According to IPR spokespeople need to be clear in what they’re saying so that people don’t think that an organization isn’t purposely hiding something. They need to avoid the phrase “no comment” because it makes them look guilty. Spokespeople should be briefed on the latest crisis information and the key message points the organization wants to convey to the public. They should also make strong eye contact, look confident and avoid nervous behaviors.

When using a spokesperson the perceptions of the public should always be taken into consideration. Having Hayward, a foreigner issuing apologies in south Louisiana, wasn’t the kind of spokesperson who BP should have sent during the crisis. In the NPR article “A Textbook Example of How Not To Handle PR” Glenn DaGian was perceive

Rule One: Don’t wear a starch-white t-shirt to the scene of a massive oil spill. Attribution: NPR

d to have been a viable spokesperson based on appearance and his attitude.

DaGian thought that BP should have been more humble, conciliatory and apologetic. He also grew up in southwest Louisiana and his “accent signaled that he share their roots.” DaGian was sent as an ambassador to groups of fishermen as well as other groups in the area. BP was given some compliments in replacing Hayward with Bob Dudley, a native from Mississippi who was a much more appealing spokesperson to the public than Hayward.

Did you apologize?

A certain level of concern and sympathy for the victims of a crisis should have been shown rather than the company openly stating that it wasn’t their fault. There is a line to be drawn as there are legal ramifications, as some lawyers may see apology and concern/sympathy for the victims of a crisis situation as an admission of guilt. According to IPR, if too many executives in an organization show concern, it might also lose its effect; however, there is more to be lost from not showing concern/sympathy than for showing too much concern/sympathy.

Companies need social media

Response via social media is also incredibly important given how quickly information spreads over the internet. Many stakeholders and the public rely on social media to get their news; as a result, social media should be used to reach employees, the public and stakeholders and utilized for responding to a crisis. BP created a social media campaign to counteract its earlier PR failures, using Twitter to send out information quickly to its audience while allowing the public to vent their frustration and anger through social media. However, their social media use was quite poor prior to the crisis. According to Luttrell, “50 percent of communications professionals believe that companies are not adequately prepared to handle crisis situations and 94 percent think that the failure to effectively define how to handle online issues leaves an organization open to “trial by Twitter” (p. 137). This statistic shows how important it is for a company to respond via social media.

Author: brandonlazovic

Brandon Lazovic is a public relations practitioner and freelance journalist with a bachelor's degree from Eastern Michigan University. Lazovic is currently a digital marketing intern at SPARK in Ann Arbor, Mich. In the past Lazovic wrote for the media relations department at EMU and was the former news editor at the Eastern Echo.

8 thoughts on “How BP should’ve handled its crisis situation”

  1. Brandon,

    Let me start by saying your use of images and videos is phenomenal! I am a visual person – lol @ my blog this week – and I just love your use of specific examples to go along with your text.

    Using and examining the BP oil spill in the form of crisis communications is such a great idea! I really hits the main points needed to execute the best crisis management plan. The sad thing is, many people aren’t aware of the usefulness a plan can actually have on a crisis, and I believe that more companies and establishments need to take this into consideration – especially EMU!

    I really enjoyed the part when you touched on the spokes person relaying the messages to the public on behalf of the company. From the outside looking in, you don’t really think that that person really matter, but they do! What they are wearing, and the way they are coming off plays more of a role in the public’s opinion than expected!



    1. Hey Courtney,

      Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed the use of images and videos in this blog post; personally I could take or leave the use of graphics and videos, but it really breaks up the text so it isn’t as agonizing to read a long block of text haha.

      I also agree that more companies and establishments need to have a plan for a crisis; the current crisis situation that EMU is facing regarding its PR image is a good example for the necessity of having the right spokesperson as well as the right plan of action. I’ve noticed that there really isn’t a spokesperson for EMU aside from the executive director of public relations; do you think that EMU president James Smith should be more of a spokesperson, or do you think that it’s better that he’s delegating that role to other members of the administration?


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Brandon,

    I really enjoyed this blog post! I think it is so important for companies to be aware of how to handle a crisis situation, and BP is a great example of what NOT to do. PR Practitioners can never fully keep crises from happening, but they can have a plan in place for what to do when they happen. With social media as big as it is, it is never going to be possible to keep crises from happening! It is vital that PR practitioners have a pre-crises plan, and companies choose a specific PR practitioner to handle their crises. I like how you talked about company apologies during a crisis. Oftentimes, the PR practitioner and the public are asking for an apology, but when lawyers get involved, it almost never happens. It is so important to have a plan in place that can minimize the damage, without requiring a full-on apology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope,

      Thanks for commenting, I’m glad you enjoyed reading this blog post! I agree that while it’s near impossible to fully check a crisis situation, it’s vital that PR practitioners have plans in place to mitigate the damage on the company’s image.

      Again, commiseration should always be issued even if the public isn’t entirely receptive. It’s better to apologize than to not apologize, even if it’s overused. However the legal ramifications for a full apology could be viewed as an admission of guilt, which is equally crippling for a PR company. They have to carefully watch what they say from the start of the crisis to the end of the crisis.



  3. Brandon,

    This blog post has to be the most informational! I am blown away by this post, for I didn’t know any of the details of the BP crisis. I mean, of course I knew the scenario but I never dug deeper to figure out what exactly happened and what their solution was. Thank you for filling me in!
    I discussed crisis communication in my blog post this week too, but I didn’t use a prime example like this- man! I wish I would’ve now after reading yours. It allows us as the reader to see how crisis communication works and the importance of it. Especially, after seeing a major company fail to sincerely apologize after a crisis.
    It upsets me very much to hear and see how this all happened. I can only imagine the Emails and phone calls the CEO received after the news conference.
    This posts goes to show how crucial it is that your company act fast but accurately. Your company is already going under… don’t dig yourself deeper in the whole. It’s more important now more than ever to build yourself up.

    -Kailey Vowles

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kailey, I’m glad you thought this post was informational! Reading your blog just now I still think it’s funny that we both wrote on crisis management this week; BP is definitely a great example of what NOT to do, but your post is just as informative as mine is. Maybe you could do a blog post using BP as an example to illustrate the five stages of crisis management and how they should’ve responded!

      After the news conference I’m sure the CEO received thousands of emails and phone calls; his role as spokesperson in this crisis was so incredibly bad that he resigned from BP in 2010. It’s definitely crucial that a company doesn’t dig itself a deeper hole by discussing inaccurate information or “modest” impacts when the Gulf of Mexico still suffers from the effects of the oil spill. Thanks again for reading!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s