Post mortem on BP’s PR demonstrates dangers of commenting in the dark

Bloggers like me often comment on how organizations are dealing with crises. I do often with a sense of dread knowing that I really don’t know what is going on inside and may not be aware of critical issues that are affecting the response.

That danger was highlighted to me to the extreme when I read today’s comments by Deborah Watson on PR Daily’s blog. My biggest concern is by getting the facts so wrong, the real lessons to be learned from BP’s reputation problems are missed, and therefore those interested will likely take away the wrong things.

I’ll comment on each of the five points she raises as BP’s biggest blunders. (Her comments are italicized).

1. Failure to prepare.

One of the comments made many times by analysts was how little the company seemed to be geared up to handle a crisis of this nature.

Given the type of industry, one would have thought that even the simplest analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats would have pointed to this such disaster as a possible scenario, around which the comms team should have always been prepared to respond.

However big your company, knowing your areas of crisis susceptibility is vital.

Nothing could be further from the truth. BP’s preparations were extensive, in part because they are mandatory. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all oil companies are required to conduct annual drills, called PREP drills, along with local, state and federal agencies. Every three years they are required to conduct a worst case scenario drill, and every so often participate in a national exercise called the SONS or Spill of National Significance. BP took preparations exceptionally seriously, including the crisis communication side. It is true, that the combination of factors that led to a uncontrolled release a mile beneath the gulf surface was not properly contemplated.

And here is the real lesson to be learned: Don’t just drill the last big event. Use your imagination, no holds barred, to envision scenarios beyond anything you think possible. This was certainly one of those. The problem was not lack of preparation, but lack of imagination. I suspect most companies have that problem as well.

2. Manipulation (or lack of true knowledge) of the facts.

In the first stages of the crisis, the company went to the press saying that the spill was only to the tune of around 1,000 barrels a day. It turned out the stat was five times the amount, but even then, company spokespeople downplayed the figure.

Knowing the facts and taking time to confirm them is imperative if you’re going to face the press to speak about your crisis. It ensures credibility from the outset. 

This is one of the greatest false accusations against BP and simply demonstrates lack of understanding of how the Oil Pollution Act works and how the Incident Command System works. Immediately after an event like this occurs (initially the event was the explosion on the platform, it was not until the platform was flooded with water and collapsed did the major spill occur) the ICS kicks in. Local, state and federal officials work directly with the Responsible Party (owner of the oil) and operate in a structure called Unified Command. UC has authority over everything, including releasing information. While all are equal, the FOSC (federal on-scene coordinator) is more equal than the others and if not satisfied can “federalize” the response. Together they are responsible for the release of information about the amount being spilled. The truth is initially the spill volume was limited for reasons I just mentioned and it was ultimately the Coast Guard Incident Commander who bore final authority for the release of the information. When BP was asked about this later, they commented that the spill volume didn’t matter in terms of the response because they treated it from the beginning as if it was unlimited. That’s the fact. They sent out a global call for all boom they could get their hands on.

There are two real lessons to be learned here: 1) Be very cautious at the early stages about any characterization of the event because the media and others (such as commentators) will be quick to use any error here to undermine your credibility. A better example of underestimating and the high cost involved is the Cosco Busan spill. Here is was really underestimated with serious reputation consequences. 2) Correct the misreports. This story went out right away about BP underestimating the volume. One discussion I had with both government communicators and BP during the event was to be much more aggressive in pointing out and correcting wrong reports and conclusions. But that violates old PR rules and they were reluctant to do that. I am more convinced than ever, and this repeated “mistake” makes it clear, that fact checking is one of the most important responsibilities of a communicator.

3. Lack of compassion.

The comments of CEO Tony Hayward have certainly gone down in history. Lives had been lost in the crisis and the implications environmentally and economically were huge for many – but he wanted his “life back.”

This comment garnered disgust and annoyance from the press and the public. Choose your messaging and your spokesperson wisely.

This one is particularly irritating to me, probably because I knew a lot of the people involved. I know how they were hurting. I know the compassion and sorrow they felt for the loss of life and for the environmental damage. And I know how hard they tried to communicate that in an incredibly hostile media and political environment.

But, at the same time I used Tony Hayward’s quote and his subsequent loss of position often in presentations and writing to demonstrate the importance of always staying on message. But blaming this on an uncompassionate company and uncompassionate CEO is just plain wrong, and again misses some very important lessons.

1. A hostile public, media and political environment. The real PR disaster that BP faced was the fact that they spilled oil into the gulf in full view of the entire world for 90 days without being able to stop it. No lipstick will make that pig look good. Then you had an administration which, determined to avoid the Katrina blame placed on President Bush, took every opportunity to heap outrage on BP–often very dishonestly. Add to this the fact that few have much sympathy for Big Oil–huge lessons in that alone. So to me the real lesson was that BP was unwilling to be more aggressive and independent in their public communication until well into the event. When I questioned them during the event about this the answer was until the spill is contained we don’t feel we can say much. But that 90 days were devastating and while the 20 years under OPA 90 prior to the spill practiced cooperative communication with government officials, the hostile approach the administration took required a much more independent and aggressive communication response.

The second important lesson is to limit the exposure of your CEO and spokesperson. I have counseled many after this that the primary face of an event of this nature should be someone in the organization who is operationally expendable. That sounds terrible. But the reason is that sooner or later something may be said that the vicious media will hang on to to hang the spokesperson and company. Hayward’s problem is that he became a bit of a media rock star, making himself visible and available on almost a 24/7 basis. Clearly he did not want to make the mistake of Exxon’s CEO in not even showing up to the scene. But that 24/7 media access meant it was only a matter of time that he would provide an out of context sound bite that would kill him. It’s a dirty shame that the context of the interview is missed. He was trying to communicate how devastating the event was to him and the company. But that one sound bite: “I want my life back” was used (abused) to create an impression of lack of compassion. All the expressions of deep concern and compassion he had previously made were lost. The lesson: use an expendable spokesperson and limit exposure time to enable them to stay completely on message.

4. Deflection of blame.

BP made a big point of the fact that the rig was owned by Transocean, and in so doing, came across as trying to deflect responsibility.

Sure, mention other parties, but in so doing, provide a shared collaborative message around how you are all doing your best to resolve matters swiftly.

For BP, it came across as if the company was trying to buy wriggle room.

This one is also very irritating. As the provider of the web-based communication system that both BP and the Coast Guard used, we were contacted very soon after the event began. In those first confusing minutes and hours it was not known exactly what happened or who was responsible. The fact is that the rig belonged to Transocean. It is an important response question because under OPA 90 (Oil Pollution Act of 1990) the owner of the oil is the responsible party. But it was quite soon after the initial event that BP assumed the actual responsibility under the Act, and launched a response website along with the Coast Guard.

One of the big lessons to be learned is there is a big difference between legal responsibility and public responsibility. The truth is, as courts determined, the spill responsibility was shared by BP, Transocean and Halliburton who supplied the failed cement. That being said, BP always and over and over and over said in their public statements that they were assuming full responsibility for the response. What became a problem was when they were called to testify to Congress. Congressional testimony is quasi-judicial and therefore would play heavily in the legal case assigning damages. So in that testimony they were far more careful in accepting responsibility and of course this was jumped on by the media despite the repeated statements of accepting full responsibility for stopping the spill and cleaning up the mess.

The lesson in this is not the BP tried to avoid responsibility, but that the legal and communication team need to work together as much as possible (before an event if at all possible) to recognize and understand the challenges this issue of liability and responsibility pose. The biggest lesson is, as mentioned above, BP should have been far more aggressive, and righteously indignant, about the reports suggesting they were ducking responsibility. The message should have been: we don’t know and we won’t know for a long time who his legally responsible, but we do know and all our actions are demonstrating it, that we don’t care about that issue right now, as we are taking full and complete responsibility to deal with this disaster.

5. Being angry and unavailable.

Many felt that BP came across as annoyed with the press interference, and that leaders were much much less available in terms of updates and commentary than they might have been.

Keeping your audience in the loop, at regular intervals, helps to no end with credibility. It shows you are keeping communication going and that you have not forgotten your level of responsibility or the fact that so many are now relying on you for answers.

I really have no idea where Ms Watson is coming from on this one. Perhaps it was the huge issue made by the press that BP was keeping responders from talking to the media. The protocol in an ICS response with a Joint Information Center operating is to have media questions directed to the JIC. When some responders on the beach told reporters they were told not to talk to them, the press incorrectly reported that BP was hiding information. In reality, BP was not controlling media access and at that time it was the White House who was dictating media messages and policy. However, the issue became severe enough that Admiral Allen, the National Incident Commander, issued a Media Policy that stated everyone can talk to the media but were to keep their comments restricted to their particular area of responsibility. The real lesson is that following this event, this is exactly the kind of media access policy that should be adopted, not the outdated one that said refer everything to the spokesperson.

BP was part of the JIC for the first month a half. Then they were kicked out of the JIC by the White House and it became, as CNN called it, “talking points from the administration.” BP always made itself available, but did not aggressively and proactively defend itself believing, incorrectly I believe, that until the spill was contained, it was best they let the government speak for the response. By that time the reputation damage was done and BP suffered under a false impression of not being forthcoming.

Again, a major lesson, particularly for private companies operating in a JIC environment, is be prepared to go independent and be prepared for the political leaders involved to inoculate themselves by aiding the media in heaping blame and outrage. It is still far better, and it would have been better all around, if the government and BP could have remained in the JIC and communicated the message that they were in it together. No such luck here. But to blame political decisions about how to best form public opinion on BP is again to misunderstand the fundamental situation.

OK, my rant is over. I do not blame Ms. Watson snor do I wish to leave the impression that I think her analysis of the PR problems is wrong. What this points out to me that without knowledge of what is really happening, and making judgments based on media reports is almost certain to lead to misunderstandings. It would be better (and this is a lesson for me as an occasional commentator on others’ crises) is to say: based on how the media reported the story, it looks like this, and given these reports, this is how the company should have or should respond.

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Post mortem on BP’s PR demonstrates dangers of commenting in the dark”

  1. I had the same thoughts when I read that article on PR Daily and am glad you commented on it. There is a tendency for industry to defer to the lead agency to let them speak on the crisis. BP expected to be treated in a fairer manner by the government and usually that has happened until it turns political and all bets off. Unfortunately, the worse seems to come out and special interest groups will always take advantage of the situation. Although I don’t know this as fact, BP’s hands were probably tied by legal counsel and were held back on their ability to be more aggressive in countering the attacks on their reputation. I also think the sheer size of BP led to many taking advantage of the company, especially with regards to claims. I do think BP got better at dealing with the claims nonsense, but it was too late because of what they had signed up to. I also think this is the nature of a crisis and something always happens that is unexpected and unplanned for. At the time, I don’t think anyone believed they could lose control of a well so quickly and not be able to regain control with its blowout preventer. Too often, every PR firm offers their advice when the facts are known after a crisis plays out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I do know if it were a smaller exploration and production company, they would have declared bankruptcy and left the government handling the claims and cleanup.

Comments are closed.