Deepwater Horizon: a look back at a first rate PR disaster

With the upcoming release of the Deepwater Horizon movie we are reminded of these dramatic events of 2010. In this post we look back on the many crisis communications mistakes, and some good moves, that BP made as it tried to manage the optics of the disaster.

It has been six and a half years since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, sank and started to spill oil uncontrollably in the Gulf of Mexico. It took no less than 87 days for the sea-floor oil gusher to be capped. Eleven people died because of the accident. At an estimated 210 million gallons of oil discharged, it was the largest marine oil spill ever.

BP saw a lot of credit it had gained in the preceding decade evaporate almost overnight. The company had worked hard to position itself in the years leading up to the disaster as a leader in corporate social responsibility and even made it to the ‘most sustainable company’ rankings. It had spent a small fortune on marketing to bolster its image as a ‘green’ company, and even changed its logo green to reflect its commitment to environmental responsibility. Within weeks of the Deepwater Horizon accident, however, that carefully maintained image of BP went up in flames literally and figuratively in what eventually became the worst man-made environmental disaster to hit the Gulf Coast.

 

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The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was also a public relations disaster in the way the company handled the media and responded to public outcry for information on the spill and ongoing plans to cap the well. Media coverage showed the oil rig on fire, underwater shots of oil spewing into the Gulf and heartbreaking scenes of oil washing up on the Gulf coast and oil-soaked coastal birds fighting for survival.

These scenes ensured BP would be judged poorly in the court of public perception. What sealed the company’s verdict was the inept way it communicated about the catastrophic event. Making matters far worse, the company’s lead spokesperson, CEO Tony Hayward, seemed oddly cavalier and disconnected from the gravity of the event.

BP continues to struggle with that legacy till today. As recently as in 2015, BP’s senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs tried to ‘correct’ media perceptions of the damage done by BP to the Gulf. His tone deaf Politico op-ed, which was defensively entitled No, BP did not ruin the Gulf’, backfired (as could have been expected). Isn’t the role of PR, after all, to anticipate the mood of the media and public at large and then weave a narrative that does the most good for a company’s brand reputation?

Initial failure to take responsibility

BP was quick to point fingers at Transocean, the company that owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon. Although it might well have been the case that the company was wholly (or partially, as it turned out) responsible for the incident, being so quick to shift blame to another party was not the right call to make in the face of a crisis. External stakeholders perceived the move as an evasion of responsibility by a company that already had a history of industrial accidents, including a 2005 fire in Texas City that killed 15. Instead of scapegoating Transocean, BP would have been far better served if it has risen to the occasion by promising to do everything it possibly could to figure out what went wrong and fix the problem. It certainly seemed to many outside observers that BP let its legal team establish the message strategy. In fact, it became a recurring theme in how the company managed the crisis: Minimize ownership of the accident, blame others, downplay BP’s liability.

Lack of empathy

Who can forget the infamous words of then BP CEO Tony Hayward (yes, ‘then’, because the crisis cost him his job) when he said on camera that he simply wanted his life back. The optics could not have been worse for such a verbal gaffe. The last thing BP should have done was had a highly paid CEO of a global oil giant lamenting about his loss of quality of life with the backdrop of the worst man-made environmental disaster to hit the Gulf in memory and one that cost 11 lives. Fittingly, Hayward’s comment expressed an element of selfishness and lack of empathy that was emblematic of BP’s handling of the crisis it helped cause.

If Hayward appeared cavalier in his approach to the media it was because he either failed to properly seek the counsel of his internal PR team or felt confident he could ad-lib his way through live press conferences. It was discovered, much later, that a corporate cost restructuring at BP resulted in the elimination of senior corporate communications staff, a critical managerial lapse that cost both him and the company dearly.

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg added insult to injury by making a statement in which he said that BP cared about the ‘small people’ who were impacted on the Gulf Coast. Not surprisingly, Svanberg failed to consult senior communications staff prior to the press conference given the aforementioned corporate changes. The ‘small people’ reference contributed to the larger narrative of a “foreign” company with a history of industrial accidents essentially trashing the Gulf Coast while only showing concern about the event’s impact to itself and not caring about the loss of 11 lives and widespread damage to the Gulf Coast ecosystem.

Lack of truthfulness

The company was less than truthful in the way it reported on the size of the spill. Whether it engaged in purposeful deceit we may never know. What’s clear is that in denying media access to the cleanup site the company gave additional ammunition the belief that it was trying to cover up the true scope of the crisis. Moreover, continuously over-promising on when the leak would be fixed and failing to deliver left the public frustrated and further damaged the credibility of the company. While it is true that a company in crisis needs to project as much situational ‘control’ as it does empathy it does not entail making empty promises to get the media off its back. Control should have meant BP sticking to the message that everything was being done to cap the leak as soon as possible and doing everything possible to minimize the damage to the Gulf Coast ecosystem.

Did BP do anything right?

BP may have gotten a lot of things wrong with its crisis communications strategy, but it is generally regarded as having done a good job of employing social media — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube — to keep the public up to date on efforts to cap the spill, clean-up the Gulf and pay reimbursements. Social media also allowed BP to respond quickly to any rumors or errors in media coverage to set the record straight. Social media became a way for BP to gain direct access to the public without the media filter, and it became highly skilled in its use.

BP also created an entire section on its website devoted to the spill. Visitors could find pictures, video and maps that tracked the spill clean-up. The section was kept active for several years given the long-term nature of the spill clean up and slow-pace of the legal fall-out and eventual financial payouts the company owed. It was also a way for BP to argue its case on its ‘home turf’ without the need to rely upon 3rd party media outlets.

Conclusion

Much like the Wells Fargo crisis discussed in our last post, the Deepwater Horizon incident is yet another example of how a reputational crisis, if mismanaged by not having senior crisis communications professionals in the trenches with senior management, can easily become an existential threat to a company.

BP did a lot of things wrong, but it did some right. A look at the Deepwater Horizon nearly six years later illustrates the need for a strong crisis communications plan and well-trained team because the demands are extremely challenging during a crisis. Companies also need senior communications staff on board who can counsel the leadership on HOW to communicate, a mistake that led to many embarrassing moments for BP. Most importantly, company leadership must take crisis communications seriously and be willing to heed the advice of skilled communicators.

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Do you need help writing the manual or training your staff for a crisis? If so, Manzer Communications can help. Our experts provide comprehensive crisis communications services from preparation of manuals and spokesperson training to on-site crisis communication training and live crisis communication consulting.

If you are worried about what a potential crisis can do to damage your brand and the reputation you worked so hard to build, then let’s talk!

 

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