BP's Gulf Coast Oil Spill PR Blunders Offer Crisis Response Lessons

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Wow. The BP PR team just can’t get it right. Even fifty days plus after one of the worst environmental disasters in history, the BP crisis communication strategy (if there is one) continues its downward spiral and never ceases to surprise me.

Recently, the Christian Science Monitor reported that BP has been buying up top Internet terms related to BP and the oil spill to push their messages and improve the public perception of the company. Really, BP? Is this the best way to communicate with key audiences and rebuild a tarnished brand? When Saturday Night Live’s next season premieres, count on a Weekend Update Really?!? commentary from Seth Meyers on this one.

From Flickr User lsgcp

Let’s face it: BP is collecting quite a laundry list of communication missteps.  Their gaffes and mistakes will be analyzed and used as examples of poor responses in crisis communication 101 classes for decades to come.

Hopefully as PR professionals, we won’t personally have to deal with a crisis the size and scope of the Gulf Coast oil spill.  Nevertheless, here are a few lessons learned from BP PR strategy to add to your own crisis communication preparedness kit.

  1. Prepare spokespersons to be spokespersons. The Boy Scouts’ motto – “Be Prepared” – should be the mantra of your organization’s spokespersons. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has not represented the company well in interviews thus far. Since crises happen unexpectedly, spokespersons should be prepared at all times for media interviews. Identify potential crisis scenarios in advance and then train spokespersons on how to conduct themselves during interviews and important messages to remember. Spokespersons are your most public presence during a crisis, so make sure they look AND sound good when talking with the media.
  2. Manage your audiences’ expectations. Since BP’s oil rig exploded in April, the company has done very little to manage anyone’s expectations about stopping the oil spill and cleaning up the mess — whether Gulf Coast residents, the White House, Congress or the American public.  As a result, it seems no one really knows what is happening – and public outrage grows. When communicating during crises, we must tailor talking points and materials to relate reasonable, achievable next steps. These messages will help keep your audience informed and prepared while keeping their expectations realistic. If BP was more measured when discussing options for dealing with the leak and the recovery process, they would give the impression they were in more control of the situation and ease resulting frustration with their response.
  3. Listen first, and then communicate where it makes sense. BP’s attempts to manage the crisis by buying Internet search terms related to the oil spill or trying to shutdown a BP Twitter parody profile were not the best use of PR resources. Instead, they should have taken a page out of Toyota’s crisis communication playbook: listen before you speak. BP PR strategy fails to listen to important audiences not only for responding to this crisis, but also for repairing their brand. During crises, communicators should devise methods — whether formal or informal or online or in-person — to first listen to the needs and perspectives of your audience and then determine where, when and how you will communicate with them. While it’s good to start this practice at the beginning of crises, it is never too late for mid-course corrections and to start doing more listening than talking.

There is a long road ahead for communicators involved in the Gulf Coast oil spill. However, it’s never too late to admit errors in judgment and attempt to communicate differently during a crisis.

So listen up BP PR team. Please do the PR profession a favor and start implementing a communication plan that can be a credit to us rather than perpetuate the notion we’re just flacks and spin doctors. The truth is that right now, you’re not even making “spin” look very good and communicators, the environment and America is paying for it. Like SNL character Oscar Rodgers (a.k.a. Kenan Thompson) says, “Fix it!”

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