BP, reputation management and crisis communications
Crisis communications strategies are a must for high-profile organisations, but even the big players sometimes slip up. In this article, we’ll take a look at the lessons that can be learned from the errors made by BP in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and other, more recent, negative press.
The news that top oil chiefs colluded to fix oil prices is the latest scandal to hit BP, a company still very much blighted by the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.
Financially, BP may receive a fine equating up to 10 per cent of its annual profits if the EU Commission finds it guilty of fixing petrol prices.
Where Deep Water Horizon is concerned, BP has set aside $7.8bn (£5.2bn) for compensation costs, however, the actual amount claimed is likely to be significantly higher as the firm states ‘fictitious’ claims are taking advantage of the fund. It recently, BP called upon David Cameron to address the issue with the US “as the rate at which cash is leaching from the company could turn into a serious new financial crisis for the company.”
Reputation-wise, BP is in crisis and has been ever since 2010. The news that 11 oil rig workers had been killed and four million barrels of oil were leaked into the Gulf made the front page of every major newspaper within a few hours of the event.
News channels in every country provided real time updates on the increasing quantities of oil seeping into the Gulf as engineers failed to cap the well, however, it was BP chief Tony Hayward’s behaviour that became almost as damaging to the firm’s reputation as the event itself.
As images of oil-drenched birds were published internationally, the now-former chief executive was photographed leisurely watching his yacht sail in a boat race held on the Isle of Wight. While scenes of emotional business owners fearing for their livelihoods made the news, Hayward told journalists that he couldn’t “wait to get his life back” from the crisis fallout. Clearly this was a man caught unprepared. His treatment of the media and public with complacency and disdain, led Obama’s head of staff to state “I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting. This has just been part of a long line of PR gaffes and mistakes.”
Preparation is everything – in good and especially bad times. The Deep Horizon oil spill not only demonstrated BP’s failure to quickly cap the well, but Hayward’s behaviour portrayed the firm as being self-interested, profit driven, out of touch, and shockingly for a multi-billion pound firm with such responsibilities, ill-prepared.
While the specifics of who was to blame and which safety protocols weren’t followed are to be debated in the courtroom, there’s no doubt that BP’s crisis management protocol was either non-existent or not worth the paper it was written on.
Had a robust crisis management plan been in place, Tony Hayward would have been adequately media trained beforehand so the ‘real life’ event wasn’t his first brush with probing journalists and an angry public. Naturally sympathetic or not, Hayward should have been guided to demonstrate empathy and leadership in equal quantities, not complete arrogance. And the yacht? Surely it’s common sense that any symbol of wealth goes into hiding while the whole world sympathises for ordinary folk fearing for their livelihoods? It appears not.
As BP braces itself for the fallout of the price fixing scandal, it’s timely to remind the top brass that failure to prepare for the unexpected will call into question its brand values and undermine the public’s confidence in a company that can’t get a grip of its behaviour. Shareholders must be praying that the crisis media protocol is the current chief exec’s bedtime reading.
So what can BP’s handling of the crisis can teach us and how we can apply these lessons to crisis comms in general?
· Prepare for the worst – Devise a crisis communications strategy that highlights weak points and appropriate responses
· Hide all symbols of wealth associated with the company’s figurehead
· Be unreservedly apologetic and outline active measures being taken
· The media and public have long memories – demonstrate that lessons have been learnt and remain alert on what the future weak points may be, and internally address this.
What are your thoughts on BP’s crisis management? Do you think it can bounce back or are mega-firms of its ilk always destined to appear aloof and out-of-touch to the general public? We love to hear what you think, so don’t be a stranger and let us know in the comments.
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