Crisis Communications: A Case Study in the Making

July 2nd, 2010

by Lauren Shapiro*

Flickr Image: kbaird; Original Image: Charlie Riedel / AP

Flickr Image: kbaird; Original Image: Charlie Riedel / AP

British Petroleum has been making front page news since April 22nd as approximately 800,000 gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico each day. BP was once an organization thought to be a “friendly brand in the oil business” – despite its previous disasters. But as the oil continues to spill into the summer months, and according to government officials into the fall, BP is being scrutinized now more than ever.

One might assume that companies that specialize in goods/services, particularly those that could potentially wreak havoc on the safety of the world’s inhabitants, would have a well prepared protocol for crisis situations. Furthermore, if the company had a predecessor that experienced a similar crisis (i.e., Exxon Valdez, 1989) they would sculpt this protocol by learning from the mistakes previously made. It’s highly doubtful that BP did not have a crisis communication procedure in place, but was and is it a good one?

According to Chris Lehane, Newsweek’s master of disaster, “One of the rules of thumb of crisis management is that you can never put the genie back in the bottle in terms of what the underlying issue is. People evaluate you in terms of how you handle things going forward. And obviously doing everything to be open, transparent, accessible is the type of thing that the public does look for from a corporate entity in this type of situation.”

 As the situation in the Gulf continues to unfold, BP has promised one solution after another with no success – in other words, they over promised and under delivered, a cardinal “no-no” in business or any crisis resolution. Lehane states, “If you tell people what you are going to do, and you suggest it’s going to be successful, you need to be successful. Because once you create those expectations and you don’t fulfill them, when you already have a significant credibility problem, it further degrades your credibility.”

BP’s inability to implement a successful solution to fix the spill isn’t the only thing affecting its credibility. BP came under fire during the U.S. Congressional hearings when executives from BP, Transocean, and Halliburton took turns blaming each other for the incident coined “the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.” And BP’s executives continue to make one public relations faux-pas after another:

  • According to the Daily Finance, Randy Prescott, BP rep, said: “Louisiana isn’t the only place that has shrimp” in response to someone’s question about rising seafood prices and the impact on local restaurants. Although the remark was reportedly only covered by one outlet, The Lens, and allegedly taken out of context, it was enough to spark a viral campaign that included phone calls and emails to Prescott.
  • BP CEO, Tony Hayward has caught flack for a number of comments, including one in which he said: “I want my life back,” later apologizing on the company’s Facebook fan page for his remark, as well as taking a yachting trip.
  • More recently the company’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, remarked about “the small people,” stating: “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don’t care. But that is not the case with BP. We care about the small people.”  
  • Other spokespeople continue to downplay the oil spill, insisting that it is having only “a modest impact” on the environment and economy and will be “down to a trickle.” Still others seem uncertain about “who is really in charge.”

And the list goes on…

In fact, there are so many remarks and actions that seemingly go against “public relations sense” and best practice – with more to follow – that outlets have begun to rank them according to “the 10 worst BP gaffes.” Though BP has done its best to cleanup search engines, buying keywords and pay-per click ads, in an effort to control some of the damage and off-set some of the negative publicity.

In the age of “authenticity” and media relations 2.0, we’re often told not to script our spokespeople, rather to let their personalities shine through and to empower them to adequately convey our key messages. Does the same apply for crisis communications? Are BP’s gaffes the result of poor media training or a sign of a larger issue?

If you were BP’s PR or media relations professional or in charge of communications for any other company facing a similar maelstrom in the media, what would you do differently?

Do you think that BP’s communication so far during this crisis is a lesson on what to do or what not to do? If you, your client, company or brand have been called into “crisis management mode” how was the situation handled? What would you have done differently in retrospect? Please share your thoughts with me and the readers of BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas.


*Bio: Soon after graduating from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, in 2006 with a B.A. in communication and a B.S. in business/marketing, I joined the BurrellesLuce client services team. In 2008, I completed my master’s degree in corporate and organizational communications and now work as the supervisor of BurrellesLuce Express client services. I am passionate about researching and understanding the role of email in shaping relationships from a client relation/service standpoint as well as how miscommunication occurs within email, which was the topic of my thesis. Through my posts on Fresh Ideas, I hope to educate and stimulate thoughtful discussions about corporate communications and client relations, further my own knowledge on this subject area, as well as continue to hone my skills as a communicator. Twitter: @_LaurenShapiro_ LinkedIn: laurenrshapiro Facebook: BurrellesLuce

3 Responses to “Crisis Communications: A Case Study in the Making”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Petersen and BurrellesLuce. BurrellesLuce said: Crisis Communications: A Case Study in the Making @_LaurenShapiro_ @BurrellesLuce #BP […]

  2. Good article and no amount of “PR” is going to take away the enomormity of the spill and allowing it to happen. The best strategies involve not causing calamities, not dealing with the fallout afterwards.

    However, BP certainly hasn’t helped itself either with its public responses and the way it has itself caused offence and a loss of confidence.

    Why is it that senior executives at such large corporations as BP, Toyota and GM make such a mess of it?

    Read this article to see why, despite almost unlimited resources and expensive advisors, many firms turn their crises into PR disasters too:

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    […]Crisis Communications: A Case Study in the Making « BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas[…]…

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