Friday, April 30, 2010

How Is BP Doing?

Even though some critics are panning BP officials for seemingly down-playing the severity of the Gulf oil leak in the early hours after the April 20 explosion and fire, I think they got off to a slow but appropriate start.

I may regret writing this, since everything can change in a single news cycle, but on Friday, April 30, 2010, they seem to be responding relatively well.

With 20-years experience in crisis communication, I am inclined to give leadership of a company in crisis the benefit of the doubt in the first few hours after a major disaster. Facts are scarce and with the loss of eleven lives and scores more workers waiting to be rescued, answers are never as readily available as the media and public demand.

One of the first important communication challenges is to respond quickly, never speculate, and make it as clear as possible you don’t have instant answers, no matter how much you wish you did. It was some hours after the initial explosion before company CEO Tony Hayward expressed his and his company’s “concern” for the “rig personnel and their families.” That probably couldn’t have happened much sooner.

Once company leadership learned the leak was five times what they had earlier reported, they said so, and then CEO Hayward said he would welcome help from anyone.

The Associated Press reported that environmentalists are giving BP credit for responding much better than Exxon did in 1989

Use of the BP website and the Joint Information Center website has been relatively good. Responding to local officials in communities in the path of the ever-widening spill, BP began opening offices in each of those communities, manned by company employees, to provide more timely information and support to the locals. That was a good decision.

The New York Times quoted Hayward saying, “Reputationally, and in every other way, we will be judged by the quality, intensity, speed and efficacy of our response.”

There are basics that work in most crises. Respond as quickly as possible. Don’t speculate. Be as honest as possible. Start by expressing sympathy for the dead and injured and their families.

Have a plan to respond to the operational issues, another plan to deal with internal and external communications, and be ready with a plan to get back to normal operations as soon as possible.

At the Institute for Crisis Management we maintain that you should anticipate what possibly can go wrong and develop a plan to manage it – then multiply how bad you THINK it might be, and plan for the even more serious situation. It appears BP had plans and processes in place, but they were limited to a lesser disaster than they are really facing.

Don’t point fingers and lay blame. Take responsibility. Do what is right. Anticipate, each day, the questions your employees, your customers, your partners, environmentalists, regulators and the public will have, and prepare to answer the questions you can answer and explain why not, if you can’t. “We don’t know” is a reasonable answer, “We don’t know, yet, but when we do we’ll share that with you, if we can,” is a better answer.


  1. Do you think BP studied Exxon's mistake and planned accordingly (vicarious learning)?

  2. My best guess is, "No!"
    If they had, they would have been better prepared to PREVENT the spill, and much better prepared to manage it, if it could not have been prevented.