Oil Slick: 5 Crisis Management Lessons from The BP Oil Spill


In Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” ~ President John F. Kennedy

Just off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico, British energy company BP is fighting the ongoing ramifications of a major oil spill not seen since the days the Exxon-Valdez in Alaska in 1989. But this isn’t a spill. You spill drinks, beans and guts. Oil isn’t exactly something you throw a few Bounty paper towels on and call it a day. It belches from pipelines and spews onto environmental, social, biological and political factors causing untold backlash, discussion and damage.

About 10 years ago BP rebranded itself with the amazing “Beyond Petroleum” ad campaign and focused on becoming a greener company. BP was able to lift itself to the level of trusted brand and market pioneer. But as a pioneer, you need to keep your eyes on what’s ahead. Oil spills provide the kind of situation that public relations experts plan for but dread: crisis management. Every major company experiences some kind of crisis during their existence—often several. As a Louisianan, I wonder about the long-term effects the spill will have on my state. But also as a marketing professional, I consider hypothetically what else BP could have done. How can BP recover? Is it even possible? Well, Exxon certainly didn’t close down after soaking the Alaskan coastline with almost 11 million gallons of oil. And even though the name Exxon-Valdez is synonymous with oil spills, the brand has removed itself from that notion with the general public and still posts billion dollar profits. That isn’t to say the public has forgotten, however, and neither should BP.

Twenty-one years after Exxon-Valdez, people in Alaska continue to fight the long-term effects of the spill. The local maritime population disintegrated, tourism and recreational industries collapsed, jobs were lost, marriages broken and bankruptcies declared—leading to rampant depression and anxiety. So what do you do when disaster strikes? Most people first think about the bottom line. Over the years Exxon is estimated to have spent $2.5 billion for the cleanup and reportedly paid $300 million soon after the disaster to those affected, as well as hundreds of millions more in punitive damages. That’s a ton of cash, but it doesn’t fix lives broken by the disaster. Exxon didn’t have a sound crisis management plan prior to the spill, a tool that can greatly lessen the blow, and was criticized for having a slow response. Exxon’s image was tarnished for several years after and set precedence for PR case studies in what not to do, but nonetheless came out wiser.

So where does that leave BP? Initially the company appeared unsure of itself when the crisis began, but has since regrouped pretty well. As oil continues to slither into the Gulf of Mexico, what can the BP learn from the past and how could they have better approached this problem? Here are a few tips:

1)    Establish a consistent presence in the media with a single spokesperson. Have one face represent the company to answer any and all questions. It gives a personal, human quality to an otherwise faceless business. Preferably, make it a local person who genuinely understands the area, can relate to the people and is personally invested in improving the situation.

2)    Establish trust. When the crisis first broke BP asked residents to promise not to sue in exchange for a small financial settlement. Nothing shows you care about others like trying to protect your own ass. Acknowledge what happened (fast), create a positive perception by assuring the public you’re doing everything possible to correct it and maintain transparency. Transparency is key in any relationship and is an age old crisis management tool that is not going anywhere.

3)    Diffuse the situation by being proactive—not reactive. Set the tone and show your competence by answering questions before anyone gets a chance to ask.

4)    Don’t be a deer in headlights. BP seemed lost when the spill initially occurred. Take charge, unite whichever groups want to help and lead the recovery effort. If it’s your mess don’t let anyone else clean it up for you. If you need help ask for it, but don’t let it run it.

5)    Socialize. As was seen with the US Airways—Hudson River debacle in 2009 where a bystander was the first to report on the crash, social media needs to be part of every crisis plan. Almost 75% of Americans are now online. Information spreads online like wildfire, and if you’re not there to release it or defend it you’re putting your company at great risk. Reach and assure the public before someone else does. (Check out Southwest Airlines’ strategy utilizing social media.)
Of course, there are numerous other ways to tackle a crisis. But successful companies do not hide their faults; they prepare for every scenario and take them head on when the time comes. The public accepts that no one is perfect, including businesses, but they also recognize when they worry only about themselves. This wasn’t a spill. It’s an opportunity for BP to embrace the challenge, take charge and show the world just how far beyond petroleum they’ve come.

For a couple examples of some famous, successful crisis management responses, click below:

Tylenol With Cyanide

Pepsi’s Syringe Scare

BP’s website with current information on the oil spill

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