This is one of the best pieces I have read concerning crises management and the almost laughable—if it wasn’t so serious—actions taken by BP. It is co-written by my friend Zamir Dahbash, a terrific PR Executive from Tel Aviv, Israel:
The spill is ‘tiny’ relative to the ‘very big ocean’
The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will not only enter the list of the world’s worst environmental disasters, but is certain to be remembered as an unmitigated crisis management and communications disaster for BP. What can be learned from the 10 major mistakes the company made, and how can these lessons be applied to the next disaster?
By Zamir Dahbash and Shlomi Bidani
It is already possible to award the BP oil spill the dubious honor of being the biggest communications disaster in recent history – and not just because the company chose to lie from the very first moment when it reported that the well was leaking 1,000 barrels a day, which led the U.S. government to fire back that oil was actually spewing out at the rate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day. The moment the American administration exposed BP’s crude lie was the moment the company’s fate was sealed.
Did that moment cause the BP management to apologize for the mendacious report and seek the public’s forgiveness? Did it cause them to reconsider and manage the crisis more transparently in an attempt to minimize the damage? Did it move them to hire the world’s top crisis management experts and to follow their advice? No, no, and no again.
Two people who were responsible for the management of this crisis are going to pay the price for its conduct. BP CEO Tony Hayward, whose forced resignation will take effect in October, will be remembered for two immortal utterances: “I’d like to get my life back,” he whined while visiting spill-ravaged Louisiana in May. Previously, he asserted during a newspaper interview that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
The second person likely to be in line for a career change, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, told waiting reporters after a marathon meeting at the White House in June that “we care about the small people.” The “small people” of the ravaged gulf coastal areas reacted with a very large burst of indignation.
As if to add more fuel to the fire, after Hayward’s pathetic performance while testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy Committee in June, he flew off to recover from the congressmen’s wrath by watching his yacht compete in a sailing race in southern England. In response to the global wave of outrage, the embattled CEO authorized a BP spokesman to explain that the break was Hayward’s first since BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20. “He’s spending a few hours with his family at the weekend. I’m sure everyone would understand that.” One person who failed to understand was Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who succinctly labeled the move “just another in a long line of PR gaffes.”
When President Barack Obama had to choose between saving his own head or that of BP, he took pains to specify that the problem had originated with a British company from across the Atlantic, by pointedly choosing to call the company by its former name, British Petroleum, rather than BP (the name was officially changed in 1998). This was no mere slip of the tongue but rather an attempt to further inflame the American public’s fury against Britain – an attempt that angered London Mayor Boris Johnson, who voiced concern over “the anti-British rhetoric that seems to be permeating from America.” Obama also forced the company to agree to set up a $20 billion claims fund to compensate those harmed by the spill, as well as to significantly cut its 2010 dividend payments, which sent the snowball hurtling ever faster down BP’s already slippery slope.
Following are BP’s 10 major errors in crisis management and the lessons we can learn from them.
- Even if we assume that BP really didn’t know the daily rate of oil spilling into the gulf, it would have be better not to have reported a spill rate of only 1,000 barrels a day. And once the lie was exposed, the company failed to apologize for the false information. Lesson 1: Don’t try to whitewash the crisis.
- Attending a posh yacht race in southern England while vast quantities of oil are befouling the Gulf of Mexico is not as good an idea as meeting with the people whose lives and livelihoods are being directly harmed and with the authorities that are trying desperately to stop the spill. Lesson 2: It’s wise to internalize the fact that from the very first moment a crisis erupts, the company’s top management is under the media’s constant scrutiny – and this includes their private lives.
- For weeks, BP blocked the media from getting to the site of the spill. Ultimately, the company caved in under pressure from Congress, but by then, horrifying images of the spill had already turned into the “screensaver” on all the news channels, all the time. Lesson 3: Practice total transparency regarding the media. Blocking newspeople only sharpens their appetite.
- The BP management prevented its workers from talking to the media, despite COO Doug Suttles’ letter to CNN stating that “recent media reports have suggested that individuals involved in the cleanup operation have been prohibited from speaking to the media, and this is simply untrue… BP fully supports and defends all individuals’ rights to share their personal thoughts and experiences with journalists if they choose.” Lesson 4: The company must issue a set of talking points to its employees and empower its own trained staff to handle the entire matter of workers’ media contacts.
- BP’s top managers were so preoccupied with defending their own good names and dealing with congressional investigations and White House meetings that they lost sight of the fact that tens of thousands of employees around the world were waiting to hear from them. This explains why Mike Williams, one of the survivors of the inferno that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig and its chief electronics technician in charge of computers and electrical systems, did not hesitate to appear on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” in May and provide a detailed account of all the failings that led to the explosion. “Men lost their lives… All the things that they told us could never happen happened,” Williams said. Lesson 5: Intra-organizational communication must be activated in tandem with external communication; this task should be headed by someone other than the company’s spokesperson and handled with total coordination regarding the company’s central messages.
- BP bought up search terms related to oil on Google and Yahoo in an attempt to redirect users to BP’s official website and damp down the firestorm of criticism raging on the Web. Of course, this did not help; in fact, many commentators say it had precisely the opposite effect. Lesson 6: Crisis management requires round-the-clock monitoring of the Web, immediate responses to users, establishment of a site providing answers to frequently asked questions, live streaming coverage of efforts halt the spill and clean up the mess, filmed statements by company management, online chats with journalists and daily measurement of both the public’s level of anger and the company’s reputation.
- Prior to the spill, BP kept a low profile on Capitol Hill in the lobbying sphere (as opposed to its rivals, Exxon and Chevron) so that when the crisis erupted, no one on the Hill wanted to know about BP. Lesson 7: Lobbying initiatives and PR activities must be maintained and nurtured on a regular basis in order to strengthen a company’s immune-system defenses.
- On the very day that BP began airing a promotional TV ad in which Hayward promises viewers that “we will get it done… we will make this right,” he told the Financial Times that “we did not have the tools you would want in your tool kit” to deal with an oil spill at such great depths. And he was later quoted by the Times of London as suggesting that Americans were particularly likely to file bogus compensation claims. Lesson 8: Crisis management requires the formulation of a message sheet to ensure that anyone speaking on the company’s behalf will stay strictly on message. The list must be updated on a daily basis.
- In his appearance before Congress, Hayward blamed all the companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig – except BP – and claimed that he was not responsible for some of the decisions that were made about how to deal with the spill. This not only infuriated the congressmen, but led BP Chairman Svanberg to announce that henceforth, he himself would be speaking for the company. But Svanberg quickly proved unsuited to the task when he came out with his “small people” gaffe after meeting with President Obama. Lesson 9: It is wise to prepare for meetings with government officials and regulators in the same way as for a news conference – by using a clear and concise message sheet.
- Despite the company’s latest announcement that it thinks it has succeeded in stopping the spill, the environmental damage is expected to go on for years to come. Lesson 10: BP must instate an orderly, long-term communications plan for crisis management as soon as possible. Based on its conduct so far, it seems unlikely that the company has such a plan.
BP representatives will be appearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee later this week. This hearing revolves around a totally different topic – whether the oil company exerted pressure on the British government to release the Libyan terrorist responsible for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in order to help it secure a gigantic oil deal with Libya. Without getting into the effects the Senate’s findings could have on American-British relations, given the backdrop of the oil spill crisis and its faulty management, it appears that BP could find itself labeled America’s public enemy No. 1.
Zamir Dahbash is the founder of and a partner in Shalom TelAviv – Public Relations and Crisis Management. Shlomi Bidani is a media consultant at the company.