The Canadian Public Relations Society

A Crisis Communications Analysis of the BP Gulf Spill

In public relations on September 17, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Situation

  • Blowout preventor fails on off shore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Explosion occurs on board the rig
  • 11 killed
  • Crew evacuates
  • Oil spills from the damaged well for months
  • Oil migrates to the U.S. shores of the Gulf coast and settles on the bottom
  • Coast Guard takes over as Incident Commander
  • CEO Tony Hayward personifies BP’s executive presence at the scene
  • BP’s Chairman appears at the scene and gives interviews
  • President Obama intervenes with visits, news interviews and media tours of the impacted communities
  • U.S. Senate convenes hearings before which appear BP executives on live television
  • Recovery and clean up initiated
  • Local labor engaged in clean up and recovery
  • Several efforts to cap well fail
  • After three months, well finally capped, oil flow into the Gulf stopped
  • Worldwide media coverage by all the planet’s major media outlets ensues and in some cases is carried 24 hours per day especially in the early stages

Problem

  • Despite denials by the company, BP’s corporate culture reflects “production is everything”;
    • Cut corners to maximize production
    • Protect the bottom line
    • Maximize profits
    • Safety is not on the Corporate radar screen;
      • In1995, 15 dead in Texas refinery explosion; reduced maintenance budgets, stretched maintenance schedules, questionable practices  linked to the cause
      • BP’s Alaska pipeline experiences a series of leaks with the cause partially traced to reduced vigilance on safety, monitoring, pipeline integrity, maintenance

Crisis Communications

BP’s operational response and Crisis Communications for the Gulf blowout had both positive and negative components including the following;

Positives

  • Quick operational response to bring people and resources together to address the blow out
  • Regular briefings at the scene for the media by technically knowledgeable personnel
  • Excellent graphics showing the public what is happening on the sea floor
  • Quick response to place TV cameras at the failed blowout preventor to show the public what was really   happening and how corrective measures would be attempted, all on a live 24-hour TV feed
  • Senior executives front and center from the beginning providing briefings and updates
  • Efforts to co-operate with the Coast Guard in charge of the Emergency Response on operational issues are intense and effective
  • As each attempt to cap the well failed, several optional plans are in place and ready for consideration and execution
  • Local personnel thrown out of work because of the spill are hired in clean up and recovery operations
  • Additional international BP staff and contractors fly in to bolster personnel on the ground to help with the huge demand for information and communications
  • Significant profits available to finance the cost of capping the well, remediation, clean-up and recovery over a period of years
  • Public statements committing to the long term objective of returning the environment and Gulf communities impacted by the spill to their pre-spill condition
  • Designing and implementing a program to assist local businesses and people impacted by the spill by engaging them in clean-up and recover operations
  • Launching a major advertising campaign (TV, print, radio) to tell the world what BP was doing to correct the problem in the Gulf
  • Appointing a knowledgeable and experienced American BP engineering and executive veteran to replace Hayward to run the day-to-day activities in the Gulf and signal that the American executive may be Haywards’ eventual replacement

Negatives

  • Wrong Spokesperson, Tony Hayward, speaking for the company;
    • His now infamous statement, “I want my life back” now etched in stone graphically illustrating corporate arrogance (The people of the Gulf who have lost their livelihood want their lives back too, Tony)
    • Soon after dropping his insensitive quote, Hayward sails his yacht in UK waters before the world’s TV cameras
  • Days later, BP’s Chairman visits the Gulf and when asked by a reporter what the company planned to do about the thousands of small businesses damaged or destroyed by the BP spill, responds, “We will take care of the little people.”
  • BP downplays the impact saying the spill will ”probably” have no, or a minimal impact on the Gulf and the environment (now being proven wrong by scientists sampling the sea floor and finding hydrocarbon deposits from the spill in shell fish and in fish breeding grounds)
  • Completely forgets and stops talking about the 11 crew members killed in the explosion and their grieving families
  • Conducts and releases an internal BP investigation blaming everyone but themselves for the incident
  • Responds with silence when a report by Steve Croft of the CBS News program “60 Minutes” airs a 15-minute segment with the Deep Horizon’s IT Manager who escaped the disaster
  • In the interview the IT Manager describes safety issues that were pointed out, but ignored by BP; serious operational safety issues raised by rig staff that were ignored; “Things BP said would never happen, happened”
  • IT Manager describes a “chest bumping” argument between the senior BP manager on the rig and the senior rig officer in charge of the rig loudly debating in a safety meeting in front of staff on board how to shut in the well safely
  • The BP manager winning the argument to take short cuts by installing 12 plugs down hole to shut in the well instead of 15 plugs to save time and money
  • Not properly preparing CEO Hayward for the devastating U.S. Senate grilling on live TV
  • Hayward repeating his empty mantra, “I was not involved in the day-to-day operations and decision-making on the rig.” But as CEO is of course accountable for the day-to-day decisions and operational decisions made that led to the disaster
  • Complete refusal to accept any responsibility for the disaster
  • Knowing BP’s coffers are overflowing and can cover the cost of such an enormous and protracted clean-up and recovery effort, and showing so in its public behavior

Summary

BP’s Gulf spill demonstrates the company has a long-standing culture problem placing money, production and profits above everything.

BP’s Crisis Communications accurately reflects its corporate culture of arrogance, indifference, detachment and obsession with production.

Its reputation is now seriously damaged for a generation or more as the term “BP” is now synonymous with incompetence, arrogance, greed, irresponsibility and a “me first” attitude.

It was completely unnecessary and avoidable if BP was a company engaged with the communities in which it works, showed it cared about people and the environment and demonstrated its priorities were:

  • People first
  • Environment second
  • Property third

Tom Donoghue APR is president of Donoghue and Associates Inc. Donoghue & Associates Inc. is a Management and Communications Consulting firm that provides communications counsel, strategies, analysis and plans to local, national and international clients.  Visit him at www.donoghue.ca

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  1. Thanks for this post, Tom. An excellent summary of BP’s response in the Gulf. Really shows a disconnect between the company and the communities in which it does do work.

  2. […] Click here to read Tony Donoghue’s summary of BP’s response to the crisis in the Gulf. Very interesting from a public relations perspective… […]

  3. It would be interesting to know what the PR team at BP advised executives to do. Did they ignore good advise? Were they taking advise from the lawyers? or did the corporate culture make it difficult for the PR folks to give open and honest guidance? I imagine we will never know the whole story.
    Glad to see you presented both sides as they did do some things right – however the wrong actions did appear to obliterated the good.

  4. the oil spill in mexico really affected the eco system around that area, it would take years to clean those mess ”

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