Decades from now, when the catastrophic deep water oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is analyzed from a public relations perspective, this will sum up BP’s response to the environmental calamity:
One of the most powerful private companies on earth really did not have a concerted plan in place to communicate its response to what may be the most far-reaching environmental disaster of our time.
In all fairness to BP’s communications team, news changes on this subject seemingly by the day. In the past seven days: The “top kill” drilling method failed; efforts continue to try to control and contain the oil and clean up the shore and marsh lands; the lower marine rise package (LMRP) containment system device was enhanced; local fisherman contracted to help with the containment are getting sick; and, the U.S. Justice Department has launched civil and criminal investigations into what led to the April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 and created the spill.
To their credit, the BP web site established in the days following the accident has been updated more regularly and a new video delivered by a senior VP offers an easy-to-comprehend graphic depiction of work underway to stop the leak.
A full-page ad in today’s Chicago Tribune is marked by a single image of workers stretching an oil containment boom and the headline: “We Will Make This Right.” BP officials, including CEO Tony Hayward appear on camera and continue to offer explanation and hope for a solution. (Mr. Hayward did apologize for his insensitive “I want my life back” quote.)
What we’re witnessing is an unprecedented crisis situation exacerbated by the fact that drilling for oil a mile below the sea is engineering operation that’s relatively new. How could BP’s communication’s team really prepare to manage a crisis for a procedure that’s still somewhat untested?
A few aspects of this disaster are clear cut:
- BP was late in establishing a web site and providing transparency.
- BP was late in providing a video feed of the ruptured well.
- BP’s CEO clearly needs some media training — and fast.
- BP needs to do a better job communicating what they’re doing to help those impacted by this disaster — now and in the future.
A few more things to consider: The images we have now show seas tainted by brown oil, dead pelicans washed up on beaches and Louisiana coastal marshes covered in muck. What will BP do to change that, and how will any efforts be communicated? And, the accident that caused the leak is unprecedented; but should the Justice Department initiate legal action, BP will have to defend itself in U.S. courts of law. There’s a lot of precedent there.