BP Crisis Communications Disaster

Welcome back!
Could it get any worse for BP in its efforts to get in the driver's seat of the crisis in the Gulf? On Thursday I did a series of interviews on CBC Radio stations in the drive time slot from one end of the country to the other. Take a listen to this one on CBC Radio's All in a Day 91.5 FM with host Alan Neal to get my take on how BP's crisis communications efforts are working out [it starts at 7.00 minutes into the podcast, following an interview with Taylor and Peyton, two wonderful young girls with a mission to help the wildlife in the Gulf nightmare]

BP's 'Failure to Staunch'...and to communicate
1. BP failed to manage expectations - of the media and the public. The goal is to under-promise and over-deliver; not the other way around. They raised so many expectations throughout that they lost credibility by the final Top Kill or was that Top Hat?
2. They failed to manage perceptions - of caring and competence. They didn't communicate that they were listening or caring. At one point early on when people in the affected Gulf communities complained that they weren't getting answers to their questions from BP, a senior executive was quoted as saying, "I've been too busy to worry about communications." Ouch!

3. "I would like my life back." A comment such as that from the CEO Tony Hayward, was tone deaf when the families of eleven oil rig workers will never have their lives back. It triggered anger and ridicule. He did the right thing and quickly apologized for it, but it lingers on in (media) public memory.
4. While the public suggestion line sounds like a good idea on the surface, after 43 days it sounded more like desperation.
5. Engage the fishing industry and local communities more. While it's true they have to be trained as volunteers, putting them to work mitigating the damage gives people a constructive role.

The 'Spilling Fields' (with apologies to Jon Stewart) 
We have done numerous seminars over many years for the United States Coast Guard on major spills and emergencies, so I know that it's not easy - and in this case with unprecedented difficulties due to the mile deep site of the 'leak' it's testing everyone to the maximum. Former Commandant of the Coast Guard and National Incident Coordinator Admiral Thad Allen has done a solid job in communications on behalf of the Coast Guard; however in all of the multi-party 'Unified Command' training which we conducted, a key principle is that the communications effectiveness of the Responsible Party is essential to have effective communications on behalf of the whole team.

Notice how the President has clearly positioned his Administration against BP - with not-so-veiled threats of criminal prosecution only the latest salvo. Here he is on Larry King Live last night trying to position himself as in charge, while holding BP's feet to the uh...spill:

If BP doesn't plug it very quickly, watch for Mr. Hayward's head to roll, and possibly a 'change in command' at the top of the Crisis Management team. Nobody ever said it was fair, but that's the reality of trying to manage the worst environmental disaster of its kind in American history.

Let's hope BP not only plugs the leak, but plug the gap in their communications too!

Until next time.....


  1. Come on, Barry. Spin can't fix this, and big oil is not really the villain. The big disconnect is with the public and politicians who fail to grasp the risks and environmental costs that the addiction to cheap oil has exposed them to. This is far from the "worst environmental disaster in American history. That is building in the wings, and its source is our tailpipes.

  2. I agree that 'spin' can't fix something like this. But poor communications doesn't help the response, and, in fact, makes it worse. It's been dubbed the worst environmental disaster of its kind (oil spill) in modern American history. I appreciate the point you're making about our tailpipes, but that kind of misses the point, respectfully. Something gradual over many years - even if worse in total emissions - doesn't trigger all the elements of a crisis (emotionalism, anger, finger-pointing, political calamities etc. Big oil is not necessarily the villain for sure. They supply our demand!