As oil continues to pour into the Gulf Coast, damaging human and environmental welfare in incomprehensible ways, we try to think of the positive lessons that have emerged from this tragedy.

Some of these lessons come from looking into our personal use of petroleum (the demand that drives offshore drilling), some of them come from watching how our governmental leaders respond to this national misfortune (perhaps with energy policy?), and others come from the actions and words of the responsible parties.

BP recently launched the following ad campaign in an attempt to reassure our nation that they “will make this right”:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKcrDaiGE2s&NR=1]

Unfortunately for BP, the campaign has received widespread criticism due in large part to the general lack of credibility that BP has accumulated.  Inaccurate estimates, failed attempts to quell the oil flow, $5,000 settlements to keep residents from suing, and courtroom battles have all contributed to public mistrust of BP.

The ad campaign reinforces negative public sentiment toward the company because its message does not align with BP’s actions to date.

On top of the cost of cleanup, BP has suffered both stock and reputational losses and its image as a “green” company publicly terminated following its removal from the NASDAQ OMX CRD Global Sustainability 50 Index.  BP need not suffer to this extent; companies in the oil industry have dealt with oil spills of various sizes in the past.  The differentiating factor may not be the crisis itself, but how the company responds.

Lessons in crisis communications:*

  • Always have a plan for the worst possible scenario (this can be relatively easy to predict from  general industry risks)
  • Take responsibility for what occurs (finger pointing generally hurts reputation and credibility, while accountability is infectious)
  • Be honest, open, transparent and accessible
  • Make sure that any information you put out to the public is accurate
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep: set realistic expectations for what the company will do to resolve the issue
  • Avoid “lawyering up” too much (i.e. withholding information, etc., because of a concern for future liability)—this can degrade the credibility of a company that is claiming to do everything in its power to help those affected
  • Consider bringing in a distinguished outside expert who was not part of the original problem
  • Communicate the steps the company has taken that show action and progress
  • Seek ways to emotionally connect with the public on the issue
  • Take action to switch from a defensive to an offensive position; be a proactive player in the solution as opposed to a reactive contributor to the problem

The benefits of being accountable and transparent outweigh the costs for companies in a crisis situation.  Oftentimes, situations like the one BP has found itself in are not just battles over a singular mistake; they are fights for the future viability of the company.

Although BP has spent over $1.25 billion responding to the spill since April 20th, and estimates for the total cost range from $3 billion to $40 billion, it seems as though the company has decided that its reputation is worth that much and more.

Continued reading:

*Mother Jones, “BP Crisis is Unspinnable” by Josh Harkinson

The Harvard Business Review, “Five Lessons from the BP Oil Spill” by Andrew Winston