How BP should've handled the oil spill and its crisis situation

Brandon LazovicNovember 13, 2016

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. 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.

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).

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

  • Prepare in advance
  • 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

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.

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