The nature and scope of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is so huge that it is difficult to deflect the wave of negative publicity that is bound to be generated in its aftermath. Regardless of the steps that BP has taken to correct the disaster the Company has faced some very grave and serious criticism for the way it has handled the crises. The manner in which BP has managed the PR aspect of the crisis has invited more criticism and public hostility for the Company.
In fact the public relations response that BP employed in relation to a disaster of this magnitude can be termed a major catastrophe in itself The Company’s PR strategy got off to a bad start right from the very beginning when news of the disaster got out and the CEO Tony Hayward‘s initial response was a nonchalant “no comment. ”. (Afzali 2010) These two words broke the very first rule of crises public relations management which dictates that a company puts out its version of what went wrong before its critics put out their embellished version of it.
In refusing to comment and putting forward the BP Perspective on the disaster Tony Hayward inadvertently put into motion a cycle of negative publicity that allowed BP’s critics to get an upper hand in setting the tone of the debate on the crises. With BP assuming initial silence and not putting forward its point of view in the initial aftermath of the crises the media went into overdrive reporting accusations and claims of negligence that were levelled against the Organization by its critics and environmentalists.
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When BP finally got around to issuing a comprehensive formal statement it had already acquired a negative persona in the minds of most global media audiences who had already judged it “guilty” as charged in causing the disaster However BP’s initial silence and delay in formulating a timely response was only the beginning of its PR catastrophe. Its consequent PR strategy ended up violating as many major public relations conventions and traditions as possible.
In fact BP was in violation of all the 5 crises PR management steps mentioned above. From the onset BP made one faux pas after the other in its Public Relation strategy. When the crises broke out BP started to deflect the blame and responsibility of the cleanup operation on Transocean Ltd the manufacturer of the ill-fated oil rig instead of portraying a concerted and strong effort to deal with the spill. In trying to apportion the blame for the accident, BP broke the second fundamental rule of effective crises public relations.
In its first press release after the accident the Organization offered its "full support,” to Transocean implying that it was the rig manufacturer who was at fault for the accident and not BP who was operating the rig at that time The company continues to refer to the disaster in all its official press releases as the "Gulf of Mexico oil spill," and not as the "BP oil spill” as it is commonly known. (Male 2010) Given BP’s size, scope of operation and past PR background it is very surprising that the Company’s lacked the required PR savvy in its management of the crises.
In the past BP’s Beyond Petroleum" advertising Campaign initially launched in 2000, earned critical claim from the P. R. community. However much of those recognized skills were lacking in the initial public response. It is quite clear from the kind of public relations faux pas made in the handling of the crises that the executives in charge of engineering the early response considered the litigation and financial aspects of the crises and may have lacked serious training in crisis communications.
In fact in its initial statements BP was more interested in negotiating financial settlements to avoid legal proceedings. One of the basic rules of crises communication is that in its initial statements a Corporation should never focus on securing legal vantage any team with a crises communication background would have handled the public relations aspect in a very different manner. Given the business that the company is in and the high level of risk involved in its everyday offshore drilling activity BP should have had a PR team prepared to deal with a crises situation like this one.
This kind of crises should have been anticipated well in advanced and a crises public relations team should have been trained in through a series of simulations to handle this kind of scenario exactly. However call it overconfidence or oversight the BP management and Team never anticipated for such an eventuality and were horribly unprepared for the disaster from a public relations perspective when it struck.
Being a major player in offshore drilling and exploration where oil spills are an occupational hazard the fact that BP was under prepared to deal with such a disaster is highly unacceptable and a grave occupational miscalculation for the company. Another major component of BP’s disastrous PR campaign was that the Company continuously fed the world media inaccurate accounts of how much oil had leaked into the ocean. For example, the Corporation initially told the press that the rig was leaking an estimated 1000 barrels of oil a day.
(Afzali 2010)However independent estimates carried out by third parties put the amount as 5000 barrels a day after a new leak was discovered- a gross under estimation of the figures provided by BP. Even after the new figures were released to the media BP continued to provide under estimated figures of the leak ranging between 1,000 and 5,000 a day. This severely affected their credibility in the eyes of the public earlier on in the crises.
People including Government and industry experts could no longer trust BP with the information they provided about the leak and started to rely on other independent sources. This particular misstep was in violation of basic PR crises protocol stipulating that when dealing with estimates provided to media no speculations should be made. If figures are not accurately known Corporations should state that they don’t have estimates rather than provide incorrect estimations which will give the public a misrepresentation of the scenario.
Not only did BP provide under estimated figures regarding the quantity of oil leaked into the environment it also downplayed the environmental impact of the crises. As fishing industries in the infected region dried up and the oil sludge threatened the Everglades ecosystems in Florida, BP officials made initial statements claiming that the spill would not have a significant impact on the environment. All that these statements succeeded in doing was in eroding the credibility of the Company.
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