Strategy & Marketing

Crisis PR Lesson with the BP Oil Spill: How NOT to Respond to a Disaster

Watching the BP oil spill unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, is like watching a cautionary tale about handling a PR crisis. As a CNN Money reported stated in May:  “Oil giant BP has a marketing slogan dubbed “Beyond Petroleum.” If only that were true. That ad campaign has to rank up there with Toyota’s “Moving Forward” motto as the most unintentionally hilarious of the year.”  The spill is bad enough.  But what makes is much worse is the response from the oil company leadership.  Here’s a basic chronology:

First – They didn’t have a back-up plan.  They were drilling in a high risk place with high risk techniques and didn’t have a strategy in mind should things go bad.  Guess what?  They went bad.

Second – They highly UNDER-estimated the size of the spill.  Even after outside experts said more oil was coming out of the hole, BP refused to listen and stuck to their original story.  Guess what? Yep, it’s bigger.

Third – They downplayed the environmental impact.  Even as gulf fishermen feared for their very livelihood, an executive stated that he doubted it would actually have much of an impact on the environment.  Guess what?  Now they’re worried it’s going to Key West and up the eastern shore of Florida too.

Fourth – Once they stuck a pipe in the hole they (once again) underestimated the amount of oil it was picking up.  Only after a Senator put the video on his website and academics did the math did they realize it’s not funneling as much oil as the company said it was.

What should we learn? 

1.  When a crisis happens at your organization, don’t make blanket statements without the facts.  Get your numbers in order so they can’t be disputed.

2.  Don’t be callous.  With many crisis situations, other people’s finances, families, or well-being may be at stake.  Take it as serious as they do.  Don’t generate the perception of being arrogant and unfeeling.

3.  Consider humility.  Sure you’re worried about the bad PR, but you’ll come off a lot better taking the high road.  Have a little empathy.

4.  Finally – get all hands on deck.  BP waited a long time before making big decisions.  When a crisis hits, don’t wait.  Get the big guns.  Get your best team on it and get on it quick.

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  1. I’m sorry, yet I cannot help but take this personal as I have family in Lousiana, Alabama and the Emerald Coast of Florida.   Corporations are killing this planet with unprecedented arrogance!

    If BP remotely cared and lived up to their slogan “Beyond Petroleum” they would have cemented the damn thing by day 2 or 3 at the latest — in respect for those killed at the worksite.  We don’t even know their names, or the impact on their families. 

    How sad — it’s all about the number of gallons!  Gimme a break!!

    Who are the stakeholders here?  Stand-up and be accountable for such a catastrophe!

  2. I will agree this is a disaster. I think that it is not being handled in the PR department correctly. Being in an oil producing area and familiar with the industryf and processes, I can understand the difficulties they are experiencing. I have seen blow outs and realize that you just can’t turn off a switch or twist a lever on a valve to shut it down. Maybe BP should have put a petroleum engineer on the tele to explain to those unfamiliar just what has to be done and what must be factored in while working at depth. Taking a proactive position to inform, not to make excuses, to show the nation just how specialized the recovery of oil is could have helped. The worse thing that could happen is letting the government take over. Who would they hire with the expertise anyway, Halliburton?

  3. Pretty logos mean nothing if your actions don’t back up what you say.

    It’s the same for churches, especially with PR disasters. We’ve all seen them. Just like BP many Churches don’t walk the talk when disaster strikes, they don’t plan ahead, they are slow to respond.

    It takes years to build a reputation and a moment to lose it.

    I talk more about more specifically what churches should do to keep their reputation here

  4. As an armchair strategist, I honestly thought they did rather well coming out of the gate. I was, of course, comparing the disaster to the Valdez, which is a textbook epic pr fail.

    Give BP credit – they showed up and took ownership of the situation. Had they been able to contain the oil quickly, their crisis management would have been adequate.

    IMHO, the biggest issue is their failure to deliver what they promise – which is a result of poor internal communications. (Can’t you just see the executive running down the hall in his dark suit, yelling, “just get me a number!”?)

    Underpromise and overdeliver is wise counsel. BP has done the opposite, and the longer this problem goes on, the worse they look.

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