Bimbo Banter

Early Lessons From BP’s Oil Spill

  • Crisis
  • May 18, 2010
  • by Merrie Spaeth


At Spaeth Communications, Inc. we have watched the ongoing crisis in the Gulf and more specifically, BP’s response to the crisis, with great interest. Founder and CEO, Merrie Spaeth shares some of the initial lessons learned from the BP oil spill and what it can mean for your organization. When did you last evaluate how you think about crisis communication for your organization? The communication environment has changed dramatically in a very short time.  In the past, you may have been prepared to give a response by the “end of the day.” Now, you may not have more than five minutes to formulate your initial response.

It’s not enough to practice operational scenarios. Practice communication scenarios. The division of ownership between BP, Transocean and Halliburton meant there was no clear definition of who was to speak on what subject and when. The result was finger pointing and bickering – making all three parties look bad. By contrast, Turner Construction, the world’s largest construction company and a division of a German-based company, employs many subcontractors.  Since Turner’s name is on the sites, Turner always controls the communication and takes the position that whatever happens is their responsibility.

Set expectations in the beginning that things will change. BP initially estimated 1,000 barrels of oil was leaking daily from the ruptured well. Eight days after the accident, they announced the rate of the spill was more like 5,000 barrels a day, five times the previous estimate. By May 5, BP was saying it could be as much as 60,000 barrels a day. That led to criticism that they had provided a lowball estimate on purpose.

Here is an example of language that should have been used during the first day of the crisis when they were still in “fact finding” mode:

“As we gather information, we will provide it in a timely and appropriate manner. We ask you to remember that new information may change our assessment of the situation and our plans. The one thing that we can predict with certainty is that facts, figures and even conclusions will change and evolve as we do get new information. This is part of handling a situation like this.”

When you use language like this up-front you can refer back to it when new facts emerge. Statistics take on enormous significance.That is one reason why expectations of change need to be set at the start.

BP got it right when it decided not to communicate via the usual “corporate” full page ads. Instead, the employees and management spread out through the coastal communities to start talking with people on the ground and to have a physical presence in the community.

BP also got good marks by using social media, tweeting its efforts and enlisting hundreds of volunteers.

The media will pull out sound bites. Be prepared. BP CEO Tony Hayward was trying to position the company as fulfilling its responsibilities, but saying “It wasn’t our accident, but we are absolutely responsible for cleaning it up,” seemed to muddy the message. Predictably, the line, “It wasn’t our accident,” was repeated over and over. Similarly, the line that the company “would pay all legitimate claims,” was interpreted that they would fight for a narrow definition of claims. This line was repeated over and over by company executives, clearly indicating it was purposeful. BP did post a statement on its website saying it will “pay all necessary and appropriate clean-up costs” as well as “legitimate and objectively verifiable” claims for property damage, personal injury and commercial losses.  While it’s very early in the incident, this claim will be credible when they can start posting examples where they have actually processed and approved a claim.

Get validating third parties on board early, before a crisis. Messages about who was responsible or what failed (Transocean’s blow out preventer) should have been discussed by experts, even if BP retained them. BP’s statements that they weren’t at fault made it look as if they were trying to avoid responsibility.Predictably, Transocean and Halliburton produced their own set of facts about who ordered whom to do what, trying to shift blame back on to BP. The public doesn’t speak the same language and can’t sort out who’s credible.

Ask yourselves what will the media, regulators and others find – and what they will think of it – if a disaster or problem occurs. The media combed BP’s readiness reports and plans for spills, finding them frequently pro forma and unconvincing. It looked like BP had simply patched together paragraphs from other plans. For the Gulf of Mexico, one paragraph pulled from a 500+ page plan for spill mitigation noted that oil could “harm seals, sea otters and walruses.”  (There are no seals, sea otters or walruses in the Gulf.) Assigning a team to “play reporter” before any real crisis would have helped BP understand its exposure to criticism and risk.

Get the most advanced message/media/spokesperson training available.BP executives, while clearly making a great effort to be accessible and forthcoming, made a number of mistakes. First, they repeated lines like “all legitimate claims,” and then they said stupid things – which were bound to be amplified. “This spill is tiny when compared to the size of the ocean and volume of water in the Gulf.” “The oil in the Gulf is the consistency of tea.”  “The overall environmental impact of this spill will be very, very modest.”

The executives also didn’t know how to “acknowledge” questions, and in a memorable exchange with U.S. members of Congress, appeared to repeatedly duck questions about what they would consider “legitimate” claims that the company would pay for. So a question would be asked, “Will you pay for lost income?” and the BP executive would repeat the line, “We will pay for all legitimate claims.”  These “framing” questions are common, and the respondent does not need to be limited to “yes” or “no” but must pick a substitute phrase such as “I don’t know,” “It’s too early to tell,” “I hope so,” “I can’t predict.”

Have “competitive video” ready to go. The images of oil slicks on top of the ocean, deep water plumes of dark matter (presumably oil), oil soaked birds, beached fishing boats and other similar images dominated the news. “Competitive video” should have been ready to counter these predictable images.

  • Caution: this type of video needs to be authentic and not “PR.” Useful examples are videos of training exercises which back up a company’s commitment to safety procedures. We are fans of doing crisis drills – which can be taped, again showing a company’s concern for anticipating problems and preparing for them.
  • Think about the anticipated crises – and what images they will generate and then what pictures will counter them. Many years ago, PepsiCo was hit by claims that consumers found syringes in cans of Pepsi. PepsiCo didn’t argue that this was extortion or sabotage – which they were virtually certain it was. Within hours, they released video of their high speed manufacturing/canning lines, showing cans whizzing by so fast that it would be impossible to insert anything. Even better, the video showed inspectors standing over the lines, visually inspecting them. The footage received widespread exposure and was very convincing. 

Now it is more important than ever to rethink and revamp your company’s approach to crisis communication. We urge you to carefully review these lessons from the BP crisis and stay diligent in your crisis preparation efforts.

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