BP’s Crisis Communications Strategy Is Fundamentally Flawed


How a company handles a crisis is the ultimate test of its character. 

Does it accept responsibility for mistakes or bad decisions, work to make amends and to improve its practices moving forward? 

Or does it resort to what I call Darth Vader PR, launching a public relations offensive to spin the public, seeking to deflect legitimate criticism?

If you fail this crisis communications test, as BP has recently, it usually indicates underlying character problems in your organization.  It demonstrates that you are out of touch with the momentous shift of social norms towards a more sustainable economic and environmental future. 
The New York Times reported recently that BP CEO Tony Hayward is in the crosshairs for his repeated gaffes and BP’s alleged cover-ups:

“Instead of reassuring the public, critics say, Mr. Hayward has turned into a day-after-day reminder of BP’s public relations missteps in responding to the crisis…
Mr. Hayward and the company have repeatedly played down the size of the spill, the company’s own role in the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, and the environmental damage that has occurred. At the same time, they have projected a tone of unrelenting optimism despite repeated failures to plug the well.”

There’s a word for that ‘unrelenting optimism’ in the face of total failure to get the job done – incompetence.  BP not only can’t plug the blowout, the company can’t even express genuine concern about the impact of its growing mess.  There’s a word for that too – insincerity.

As a result, the NY Times notes that “the company and Mr. Hayward face a public relations crisis that will last for many months.”

The reason BP finds itself in a PR ‘crisis’ is clear – the public doesn’t trust BP, and for good reason.  Where is the concern in BP’s response?  Does the company feel any real sense of responsibility behind their polished PR messaging?

People recognize sincerity and competence when they see it.  And it’s never on such full display as in your response to a crisis. Can they trust you? Do they have confidence that you will do the right thing? 

In BP’s case, the answer is clearly No.

BP’s only concerns in the wake of this disaster should be providing for the families of the workers who were killed, plugging the ongoing calamity on the sea floor, and protecting the ecosystems of the Gulf which support the livelihoods of its residents – the humans, birds and marine life that will continue to bear the brunt of the impact of this disaster for years to come. 

Long after BP stops airing ads featuring its CEO Tony Hayward pledging to “do everything we can so this never happens again,” the Gulf will bear irreparable scars – perhaps the loss of bluefin tuna from the Gulf forever, and untold damage to other species – because BP let it happen in the first place.

Instead of opening up the flow of information, operating transparently, and communicating honestly about the blowout, BP has turned to Darth Vader PR.  Darth Vader PR begins with an ethical misstep in which important social or environmental problems are redefined as public relations issues to be finessed rather than as legitimate concerns to be addressed. 

BP has exhibited a lot of Darth Vader tactics lately.  BP’s web teams in Houston and London, together with the company’s marketing executives, have purchased search terms and phrases on leading search engines like Google and Yahoo in order to drive traffic towards the company’s spin and away from independent analysis elsewhere.  

BP has tried to block information about the oil flow rate, muzzled its employees, harassed photographers and members of the press, and manipulated the flow of information by claiming proprietary rights over footage of the oil gushing into the Gulf.

BP has retained the Brunswick Group, a firm specializing in crisis management, to deal with the accident response.  BP also appointed former Brunswick employee Anne Womack Kolton as its new head of media relations.  Kolton previously served as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and as spokesperson for the Bush Energy Department, neither of which was known for its transparency or for its concern about the environment.

It is anyone’s guess what Brunswick and Kolton are advising BP to do, but there is reason to believe their crisis response team is more concerned with spin than substantive change within the company’s culture.

What happens at BP is a harbinger of the attitude of the entire industry.  As the top oil and gas producer in the U.S. and the largest deepwater operator in the Gulf of Mexico, BP sets the tone for all its competitors. 

What kind of strange world do Tony Hayward and BP think we live in when they resort to airing insincere apology ads and telling the public that the Gulf is huge so this ‘spill’ is of “very modest” impact?  Are they really that detached from reality to suggest that this was just a simple engineering accident that will amount to a blip on the radar of maritime history? (By the way, this is not a ‘spill’ by any stretch of the imagination, and the media should stop calling it that.)

Contrast the BP ‘we’re sorry’ ads with the treatment doled out by Stephen Colbert earlier this week, or the impassioned tirades of James Carville as he blasted the lackadaisical response to this monumental disaster. 

As federal investigators probe BP’s actions to determine where the company went wrong, they should remember to ask the question, is this an industry that is capable of doing the right thing?

The disaster in the Gulf is not the result of some long-shot unforeseeable accident.  Blowouts have occurred throughout the industry, and will continue to happen as long as we rely so heavily on oil and other fossil fuels.

The BP disaster – like the Massey Energy coal mine tragedy – is a symptom of our fossil fuel addiction.  It will repeat itself, perhaps not in such grotesque fashion, if we’re lucky, but it will happen again until we address the addiction and cure it by moving to cleaner sources of energy that don’t jeopardize our livelihoods, our food supplies, our summer beach vacations, and our fishing and tourism jobs.

Let the Gulf disaster be the last time a CEO ever tries to downplay an ecological and economic catastrophe as “very modest.”

It’s time to do the right thing – ditch the Darth Vader PR, transition off fossil fuels quickly and work with elected leaders to build a clean energy future so we truly never find ourselves in this predicament ever again.

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This is a guest post by environmental communication professor and Louisiana native Ned Randolph. I grew up in the shadow of the Mississippi River, whose mythology pressed upon my imagination.&n...

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