Communication Currents

BP's Crisis Communication: Finding Redemption through Renewal

August 1, 2010
Crisis Communication

On April 20, 2010, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig, located off the coast of Louisiana, exploded in a massive blowout that killed 11 men and injured 17 others. Two days later, the burning rig sank, setting off the largest offshore oil spill in United States history. The economies of the Gulf Coast states, as well as their fragile ecosystems, have been devastated by the spill. BP placed $20 billion in escrow as a down payment against the true cost of the disaster, sure to be much higher by the time it is finally resolved. It is difficult to imagine a more challenging Public Relations situation than that faced by BP. Valuable lessons may be learned in organizational crisis communication from an examination of the actions taken by BP, both before the Deepwater Horizon explosion and later, during its aftermath. 

The hope for BP, as well as any organization in crisis, is in the undeniable fact that all crises bring with them opportunities for renewal. Crisis communication scholars emphasize that a discourse of renewal in organizations requires strong leadership, a prospective outlook, and a willingness to tenaciously embrace values of corporate social responsibility. Organizations that dedicate themselves to renewal following crises have the potential to, with time, emerge from a crisis more steadfast, trustworthy, and resilient. 

In response to a crisis, strong leadership builds confidence. Such leadership is characterized by communicating honestly, openly, and with compassion for victims at all levels. In the two months following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP failed to communicate such leadership. Ambiguous public communication that underestimated the volume of the spill while overestimating the capability of the company to plug the well created an image of incompetence, at best, and fraudulence, at worst. BP was slow to fathom and subsequently reveal the severity of the crisis. The weekly solutions and subsequent failures in May and June are now seen largely as efforts to distract the public as BP pins its hopes on the second well it feverishly seeks to complete before summer's end.  

In addition, gaffes and implausible denials by BP CEO Tony Hayward, now ousted from the role of primary crisis spokesperson, made BP's expressions of regret questionable. Although not his intent, statements such as “I want my life back,” and BP cares for the “little people” made Hayward appear calloused and further burdened the company. 

The recent appointment of former Mississippi resident, Robert Dudley, to replace Hayward as primary leader in responding to the crisis is a positive sign. Dudley insists that, with him at the helm, BP is “doing things differently.”  

Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC), have demonstrated the positive impact such leadership can have in responding to crises. After failing to emerge as the leader the country wanted and needed during the anthrax bioterrorism crisis following 9/11, the CDC has evolved into an enviable resource in crises where people's health is at risk. Julie Gerberding ascended to the role of CDC Director in the aftermath of the anthrax crisis. She admitted that the agency was not prepared to address the anthrax crisis. She dedicated her time in office to restructuring the CDC so that it could better "confront the challenges of 21st-century health threats." The CDC's effective responses to the SARS outbreak and the H1N1 pandemic are testament to the agency's renewed capacity for addressing all forms of health concerns.  

When organizations take on a prospective outlook, they seek to learn from all crises they encounter. Failures, big and small, are seen as learning opportunities and foster opportunities for discussing positive changes at all levels of the organization. Information regarding actual improvements made is then communicated to interested publics. Unfortunately, BP failed to respond adequately to the warnings revealed by two recent events. In 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas killed 15 employees and injured many more. A year later, miles of wilderness were tarnished when 270,000 barrels of crude oil drizzled from BP's Trans Alaska Pipeline system. The two events were front-page news. BP was fined $21 million for violation preceding the Texas explosion and was forced to shut down the troubled pipeline.  

Shortly after the Texas and Alaska events, then BP CEO, John Browne, said in a New York Times interview, “We have to get the priorities right . . . And job 1 is to get to these things that have happened, get them fixed and get them sorted out. We don't just sort them out on the surface, we get them fixed deeply.” Browne's comments were timely and history now shows that, indeed, the philosophical transformation of BP's safety culture was needed. But these events and BP's commitment to a newfound culture prioritizing safety apparently did not transfer to the Deepwater Horizon project. 

Developing a prospective vision is certainly demanding, but achievable. For example, Exxon, despite its earlier failings, has not experienced another major ecological disaster in the 21 years since the Valdez disaster. Similarly, Jack in the Box restaurants caused a deadly E. coli outbreak that nearly caused the company's financial collapse. After developing and resolutely enforcing some of the most stringent food safety practices in the fast food industry, the company has recovered and has not experienced a serious food safety problem since. 

Prior to the Deepwater Horizon crisis, BP's commitment to corporate social responsibility was questionable. The company had a history of raising profits by purchasing and dismantling companies. To save costs, BP bought and dismantled companies such as Amoco, firing their most experienced engineers and replacing them with less experienced subcontractors. During an investigation of BP's Alaskan pipeline spill, one BP engineer's lament foreshadowed the current crisis, “There is no doubt that cost-cutting and profits have taken precedence over safety and the environment.”  

BP's commitment to corporate social responsibility was questionable before the onset of the Gulf crisis and the company's initial response to the crisis has been underwhelming. The company does, however, have an opportunity for redemption. BP can communicate a consistent message of corporate social responsibility with a genuine and generous dedication to its post-crisis response. Specifically, an ongoing commitment to resurrecting the ecosystem in the gulf, attending to the financial needs of gulf residents, and addressing the complex and lasting emotional toll on residents are essential. Simply put, BP must recognize the urgency and necessity of entrenching itself in a long-term commitment to the healing and recovery of the gulf coast and its residents. 

Emphasizing corporate social responsibility can make a positive difference in all aspects of a crisis situation. For example, in 1994, Schwan's Sales Enterprises caused what was then the largest nationwide outbreak of salmonella poisoning in U.S. history. At the onset of the crisis, Schwan's CEO, Alfred Schwan, held an emergency meeting where he established the company's guiding philosophy for responding to the crisis. He said simply, “If you were a Schwan's customer, what would you expect the company to do?” Schwan's initiated a recall even before all the Department of Health finished its testing procedures. The company reimbursed customers for the cost of the recalled products and paid for medical testing and treatment of those who were ill. Schwan's experienced a complete financial recovery and has not had a major food safety problem since.  

BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster clearly has the lasting attention of the organization and its stakeholders. Thus, there is a strong likelihood the crisis will provide the motivation BP needs to at least attempt to renew itself. Following these guidelines for organizational crisis communication would help them, or any other organization facing a significant Public Relations crisis, to achieve that goal. Meaningful change will not come for the oil giant, however, unless it heeds the admonition of C.S. Lewis: “every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.”   

About the author (s)

Tim Sellnow

University of Central Florida


Tim Sellnow