Even Giants Fail – Let’s learn from BP’s Crisis Communication in its Dirty Business

Deepwater Horizon — Crisis Communication at BP

A textile discounter that produces its goods under exploitative and inhuman working conditions in faraway India; a bank that manipulates currency rates to make billions; an automobile company that cheats governments and customers with manipulated engine control software — scandals that KIK, Deutsche Bank, and Volkswagen, for example, were confronted with, seem to be accumulating in the recent past. But in reality, manipulation, deception and exploitation, practiced by companies, run like a red thread through history. Even before the beginning of industrialization, food producers had been stretching flour with gypsum or lime, and corrupt politicians of the Weimar Republic let themselves be bribed by industrialists.

The oil crisis of the Deepwater Horizon

The global oil company British Petroleum — BP has also got into a sudden corporate crisis: On 20 April 2010 at around 10:00 PM CST, an explosion occurred on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform — the catastrophe took its course:

  • 780 million litres of oil leaked;
  • the oil rig sank two days after the explosion.
Photo by Unnamed Worker on Nearby Boat

What about BP?

  1. Was the company prepared for a disaster such as the one that occurred off the coast of Mexico in April 2010?
  2. Did everyone involved know what to do and how to deal with the various stakeholders based on the industry’s experience of past disasters?
  3. Was BP able to manage the disaster ethically and strategically with its crisis communication strategy and crisis management?
  4. And has BP done everything in its power to contain the consequences of such a disaster?

BP’s crisis management

As in almost all large corporations, BP also has a crisis manual in which the communicative and technical measures as well as responsibilities and procedures in crisis situations are defined. According to reports, the BP Crisis Handbook comprises 580 pages. The crisis team is quickly convened, the coast guard informed and all communication channels activated. But beyond that, the manual contains very little information. For example, there is insufficient explanation of how a leak can actually be closed or how communication can be maintained during the crisis. The US government also criticises these emergency plans retrospectively and denounces that only a dwindling amount has been invested in security and security concepts in relation to BP’s annual profit.

Openness and transparency — No chance!

In the entire crisis situation, BP, contrary to the success factors in a crisis situation ‘openness and transparency’, only slices out with the truth. The principle “deny — trivialize — make concessions” is more likely to be followed. BP’s representative Tony Hayward, at that time Chairman of the Board, is becoming more and more entangled in lies and false statements:

  1. In the further course of the crisis, he puts the oil outflow at 1,000 barrels per day. After days, the estimate was revised upwards to 5,000 barrels per day. Finally, experts estimated that a quantity of 100,000 barrels per day was not unlikely (100,000 barrels correspond to 15,900,000 litres).
  2. In the course of time he speaks of a problem that can be solved quickly and spoke small of the possible consequences of the accident.
  3. In another interview Hayward talks about how he would like to have his life back before the catastrophe.
Photo by Reuters/Lee Celano

Online channels in BP’s crisis communication

BP was utilising online channels in its crisis communication accelerated. The aim was to present the events surrounding the Deepwater Horizon disaster in a transparent and open manner to the individual stakeholders, but especially to the public. For example, a website set up specifically for the accident was quickly accessible at www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com. On the website, BP, together with the U.S. Environmental Protection, Occupational Safety and Health authorities, the U.S. Department of Defense and other companies involved, provided information on crisis mitigation measures, information on the Investigation Committee, and contact points for complaints or ideas or suggestions for improvement. The website thus served as a central communication medium — including all the social media channels used.

Aspects of BP’s crisis communication

Despite the negative aspects mentioned in BP’s crisis communication, it can be said that BP was unprecedented in its offensive communication in connection with the disaster — if you compare the communication with the usual one in the petroleum industry. BP quickly took communication into its own hands, even if it did not see itself as directly responsible for the disaster. BP made particular use of the modern possibilities of online communication to inform and collect the respective stakeholders. The company created a supposedly transparent picture of the immediate events and measures following the disaster on site.

Strategy: Untruth?

In the course of the crisis more and more “untruths” were uncovered by BP —
manipulated photos that are supposed to construct a false reality; blackmailing fishermen who are hired for clean-up work but in return are supposed to waive their claims for damages; or bribing researchers who are supposed to publish their results only after the damages have been paid.

Photo by Julie Dermansky — Read also: Six Years After Deepwater Horizon: Time For Serious Action

Recommendations for action — that should have gone better

The analysis of the BP Group’s crisis management has shown that an essential factor has been forgotten in the strategy: Honesty. By acting and communicating dishonestly throughout the entire crisis communication dynamic, BP withdraws three of the success factors in crisis communication from their foundation. The success factors of
1. openness and transparency,
2. trust and
3. social responsibility
cannot be convincingly exploited by BP with its crisis communication strategy.

The crisis barometer for strategic planning

In order to better prepare a company for possible and unlikely crisis scenarios in the future, models such as the matrix for identifying crisis areas should be seen as an adequate tool in strategic planning. With the help of this matrix, a company can identify possible problems or crisis triggers in the various corporate functions and thus prepare for them accordingly.

Source: Own representation based on
Wiedemann, P. M., Crisis Communication.
  • Determination of the group of persons responsible
  • Definition of reporting channels
  • Detailed alarm plan
  • Definition of alarm thresholds
  • Description of information paths
  • Definition of the accompanying measures to be introduced
  • Knowing the company in all its facets
  • Have the necessary competence to answer detailed questions about the crisis situation
  • Have excellent communication skills
  • Have experience in dealing with the public and the media
  • Demonstrate high mental and physical resilience

Freelance Marketing & Digital Strategy Consultant — Creating meaningful brands — www.kontik.de