On April 20, an explosion aboard Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig leased by BP, killed 11 crew members and created a leak that has spewed 85,000 barrels of oil to date into the Gulf of Mexico.  For BP, the responsible party, it is a crisis of epic proportion.

But long before and independent of a crisis, companies spend time and money building their reputations.  And should a crisis occur, it may be a good reputation that allows them to weather the storm.

BP’s oil spill perfectly illustrates the symbiotic relationship between reputation and crisis plan by proving how quickly a painstakingly built reputation can be destroyed.  BP has spent many years and many millions (likely billions) crafting its “green” reputation.  BP was the first oil company to publicly acknowledge the dangers of global warming; it has invested heavily in alternative energies like wind and solar; it worked to get its carbon emissions down to 1990 levels.  While the Gulf spill doesn’t take away the environmental benefits of those actions, it could very well take away from BP’s bottom line.

The question that will have to be answered in the aftermath of the spill is whether or not the green and yellow sunburst remains a signal to gas guzzlers that they are making an environmentally sounder choice.  How BP responds to this crisis will frame that question.  Words have weight and the wrong ones can bring quick and easy ruin.  Examples abound: John Kerry voting for Iraq war funding before he voted against it; embattled auto executives flying to their congressional hearing in a private jet; George Allen calling video tracker Shekar Sidarth “Macaca.”

In recent weeks, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has been on the media circuit doing damage control. His press tour offers some important crisis communications takeaways:

  1. Acknowledge Responsibility and Don’t Whine
    “This wasn’t our accident,” Hayward said on ABC’s Good Morning America.  “This was a drilling rig operated by another company. It was their people, their systems, their processes. We are responsible not for the accident, but we are responsible for the oil and for dealing with it and for cleaning the situation up.”
    When surprised host George Stephanopoulos asked Hayward to clarify his statement that BP was not responsible for the accident, Hayward reinforced that it was Transocean’s “equipment that’s failed; it was their systems and processes that were running it.”

    Transocean, the drilling company that operated the rig, certainly has a role to play, but it doesn’t change the fact that BP is the responsible party that entered into a lease with Transocean.  By attempting to shift some of the blame, Hayward came across as whiny and petulant when he should have been reassuring and confident.

    A simple change of wording would have accomplished invoking Transocean without sounding petty: The drilling rig was operated by another company, Transocean, but BP is taking responsibility and working around the clock to clean up the leak.

  2. Don’t blame the victims
    As the oil continues to gush into the Gulf, damage claims are also surging.  Hayward promised that BP would honor “all legitimate claims for business interruption.”  It’s perfectly acceptable for him to use the word legitimate – why would BP honor illegitimate claims, after all – but Hayward went on to say, “This is America – come on.  We’re going to have lots of illegitimate claims.  We all know that.”
    Yes, there will be illegitimate claims, but that is for scores of lawyers to work out.  Hayward’s dubious comment undermined what should have been a positive message about BP’s concern for victims of this spill.
  3. Create Actionable Plans
    The Wall Street Journal reported that BP’s general spill plan indicated that the worst spill from the company’s mobile drilling operations would be from its Mississippi Canyon 462 rig, which had the potential to leak as many as 250,000 barrels a day, 50 times the estimated size of the current leak.  The plan also claimed that it had sufficient booms, dispersants and skimmers to handle a spill significantly larger than the one it is now struggling to stop.
    Not only does the above example create a communications problem for BP, it also highlights that plans have no value unless they are realistically actionable.  The same is true of a crisis communications plan.  It’s not enough to just have one.  You need to understand and be prepared to use one.

Of course, it’s easy to be a critic.  So, in the interest of fairness, here are a few of the things BP is doing right:

  • Branding it the “Gulf of Mexico response” to prevent it being cemented in history as the “BP oil spill.”
  • Giving the spill front-and-center placement on its website home page, rather than forcing viewers to search for a special section or relegating it to news releases.  (In stark contrast, Transocean’s latest news update on its website is from April 26.)
  • Offering resources and phone numbers to report injured wildlife, spill-related damage, and alternative response technology.

In short, crisis communication is not easy.  Media training and live interviews are worlds apart.  The best any company can do is adequately prepare and continually build and strengthen a good reputation.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)
The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.