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June 3, 2010
PR Lessons of the BP Spill

There are two reports on the PR lessons of the BP spill on the Internet this morning, one by the McClatchy Newspapers and the other by Fortune (http://money.cnn.com/2010/06/02/news/companies/bp_exxon_gulf_spill.fortune/). Both point up the importance of having a crisis communication plan at-the-ready that's practiced in regular drills before a crisis strikes. 

We don't know whether BP has such a plan but, if so, it doesn't seem to have been well-practiced.

Above all, in a crisis a company needs to be fully forthcoming. The overriding need is to build and maintain trust, regardless of the financial consequences to a firm from likely lawsuits. (Don't forget, If trust is established, juries are likely to be more lenient.)

The McClatchy piece suggests how not to build trust, and both BP and the Obama Administration are examples:

– "A litany of half-truths, withholding crucial video, blocking media access to the site and a failure to share timely and complete information about efforts to contain the largest oil spill in U.S. history have created the widespread impression that BP is suppressing the facts about the April 20 oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, if not misleading the public and the government."

– "The government has been little better, for weeks blindly accepting BP's estimates of the size of the spill, all but powerless to force the company to curb its use of toxic chemical dispersants and ignoring warnings from its own officials about possible worker safety violations."

A presidential commission is going to study the BP spill, as the Kemeny Commission reviewed the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant 31 years ago. The TMI study included a report on "The Public's Right to Know," a PR accompaniment to the main report that was developed under the leadership of communication professor Sharon Friedman of Lehigh University. Any BP findings would be incomplete without a similar review of the PR dimensions of the disaster. (This is a real disaster, TMI was only a perceived one.)

Again, when a crisis occurs, the response needs to be an unstinting flow of accurate information aimed at building trust in the organization responsible for the situation. That won't happen without a plan at-hand that's been practiced beforehand. Placing that sort of emphasis on effective crisis response helps build a corporate culture committed to doing things right in the first place, which lessons the likelihood of a crisis. What you definitely don't want is the sort of "good ol' boys" network that Newsweek (June 7) advises was in charge at BP and the U.S. Interior Department's Minerals Management Service. 

Imagine if BP had paid heed to the crisis communications aspects of the TMI accident. We're not assuming they didn't, but if they did, it's not showing.

– Fortune Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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