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Communications Lessons from the Spill

HR leaders need to evaluate their organization's crisis-communication plans with an eye toward BP's response to its oil spill in the Gulf.

This article accompanies BP's Bubbling Cauldron

Tuesday, March 1, 2011
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At Spaeth Communications Inc., we watched the oil-spill crisis in the Gulf and more specifically, BP's response to it, with great interest. Here are some lessons learned and what it can mean for your organization.

When did you last evaluate the way you think about crisis communication for your organization? The communication environment has changed dramatically in a very short time. In the past, you may have been prepared to give a response by the "end of the day." Now, you may not have more than five minutes to formulate your initial response.

All companies, particularly large global companies, need to focus on the way the "new media" channels have changed crisis communication and the way the Obama administration's philosophy complicates the situation.

It was unpleasantly surprising the way Obama administration was willing to say things like, "We'll keep our boot on their neck" with the president himself saying he would have fired CEO Hayward.

Boot? Is this Nazi Germany? Modern-day Russia?

This was bad for BP, but it was also a horrible precedent for business as a whole. A few conservative political commentators picked up on the danger here, but the business community was so terrified of looking as if it might be excusing BP's problems that everyone went into deep-closet mode.

Lessons Learned

It's not enough to practice operational scenarios. You must practice communication scenarios.

The division of ownership between BP, Transocean and Halliburton meant there was no clear definition of who was to speak on what subject and when. The result was finger pointing and bickering -- making all three parties look bad.

There also needs to be coordination with government bodies and highly localized spokespersons need to be part of the thought process.

The media combed the beaches looking for anyone with an official patch on their sleeve for a quote about the progress or lack of it. Residents of affected locales learned quickly to enlist media to show their own out-of-work boats, oil-covered birds, empty motels, etc.

BP frantically got people on board at the national level but needed some way to develop a campaign-like network on the ground.

Set expectations in the beginning that things will change.

Statistics take on a life of their own. The estimates of gallons spilled or collected by the pipeline finally connected to the damaged well and hooked up to the surface ship kept changing daily.

The constantly changing numbers sparked a debate among experts, provided continual fodder for news and talk shows, and made BP look out of touch at best and duplicitous at worse. The debate over the "real number" -- which, of course, cannot be exactly estimated -- produced constant bickering.

BP should have said, "We'll have an accurate determination of the amount only after we have succeeded in first containing the affected well."

Use social media.

BP got it right when it originally decided not to communicate via the usual "corporate" full-page ads," and instead had employees and management spread out through the coastal communities to speak with people on the ground and have a physical presence in the community.

But then it decided to commit a reported $50 million to full-page ads featuring real employees describing their jobs and commitment to stop the flow, and clean up the affected areas. Predictably, critics, including the administration, roasted them for the expenditure.

This is the time to take risks. The perception of being a "rich" company -- buying ads -- is dangerous.

Instead, the company should have tried creative approaches, designing the ads or apps for iPhones and asking the public to pass them on, contributing a dime for every click. These are the techniques young people are embracing, where they can send a few dollars to a charity by texting a number.

BP does get good marks for using social media, tweeting its efforts and enlisting hundreds of volunteers.

However, this is another example where small missteps were magnified. A parody Twitter account, @BPGlobalPR, posted tweets such as "Special on blackened shrimp." When a spokesperson was asked about it, she said she was unfamiliar with it. This is hard to believe.

Be prepared for the media to pull out sound bites.

CEO Tony Hayward seemed determined to provide unhelpful fodder for commentators.

He announced, "I want my life back," claimed that the underwater plumes didn't exist, insisted that the amount of oil was only a teaspoon in a vast ocean and more.

It's clear that BP didn't have any comprehensive model or philosophy of communication and that the CEO didn't have a close, trusted adviser who could become his alter ego advising on communication.

If any CEOs are still wondering if these are "soft skills," here's your answer. We see too many internal communications people who tell the boss what he wants to hear -- "You were great" -- rather than what he needs to hear. Note to CEOs: when your staff or your on-retainer PR firm tells you that you're wonderful, get a second opinion.

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Company officials need training, but without a clear methodology, what you've got is rehearsal, not an enabling framework. Officials need to sound conversational, not rehearsed -- but it is predictable that phrases that reflect badly will be amplified.

Be prepared for the media, regulators and others to seek out every criticism, violation, sloppy report or unflattering e-mail.

For BP, this should have included looking ahead to scheduled events like a vote on the company's dividend. They again let the politicos get ahead of them, when they should have anticipated criticism and located sympathetic individuals whose retirement income depends on BP.

As for e-mails, one lawyer, sifting through documents from a 2005 refinery explosion, found e-mails from the head of PR suggesting that the publicity would quickly die down over the coming holiday weekend because of the controversy over Terry Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose parents and ex-husband were fighting bitterly over whether to end her life.

Every company has items that can make it look duplicitous or unconcerned about safety or other issues. Find them before they get handed to a reporter.

Have 'competitive video' ready to go.

The images of oil slicks on top of the ocean, deep water plumes of dark matter (obviously oil), oil-soaked birds, beached fishing boats and other similar images dominated the news. "Competitive video" should have been ready to counter these predictable images.

Companies should ask, "What kind of processes can we film that show our regular commitment to safety, training or good stewardship?" Again, remember, they must be real. Minimize the production values, and keep them simple.

It's time for organizations to step up. Recognize BP's mistakes, lack of preparation, failure to anticipate, etc.

Now it is more important than ever to rethink and revamp your company's approach to crisis communication. We urge you to carefully review these lessons from the BP crisis and stay diligent in your crisis preparation efforts.

Merrie Spaeth is one of the country's acknowledged leaders in handling crises. In fall 2000, she was called in by Mexico City-based Gruma Corp. after the discovery of genetically modified elements in the food supply from subsidiaries Mission Foods and Azteca Milling, LLP. caused the largest food recall in U.S. history. In the early '90s, her company was teamed with Arthur Andersen and McKinsey to take Zale Corp., the nation's largest retail jeweler, through bankruptcy and reorganization. Her company has handled countless crises over the past two decades. This article was taken from two presentations by Spaeth, in May and June, 2010.

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