Greenpeace Revised version of the BP Logo after Oil SpillThe BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest offshore oil spill in US history. BP have finally managed to put a temporary cap on the well which has spewed out between 94 million and 184 million gallons of oil into the sea.  The flow of oil is now stopped for the first time in 87 days. During that time, BP has been giving us all a lesson in how to make a bad situation worse through bad PR.

A review of what BP are doing on- and off-line to deal with the crisis…

Traditional PR:

From the outset, BP danced around the problem, showing a lack of transparency and a lack of sympathy to victims and the wider community affected by the oil spill. The morning after the explosion, they issued a statement acknowledging the incident but attempting to distance themself from it – pointing blame towards Transocean, the company who operated the rig. They noted that some workers were “unaccounted for” but did not elaborate. It was actually FOUR DAYS after the incident before BP acknowledged the victims of the explosion in a statement: “BP Offers Sympathy To The Families Of Those Lost In The US Oil Rig Fire“.

Juggling semantics to build a ‘chinese wall’ between the problem and the company, BP referred to the spill the “Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill” whilst President Obama, the media and the Environmental Protection Agency call it the “BP Oil Spill”.

Disaster thy name is Hayward

They made the strategic decision to give the company a public face in CEO, Tony Hayward (pictured), rolling out a TV and print advert campaign in which he committed that BP would ‘make it right’. However this may have been one of BPs biggest mistakes. Hayward was clearly not the man for this job…an expert in saying the wrong thing and being in the wrong place at the wrong time,  he started off by telling the media “it wasn’t our accident“, again trying to shift blame to Transocean. Hayward then referred to the spill as “relatively tiny”. BP CEO Tony Hayward

Refusing to admit the true scale of the problem, BP estimates that 70,000 barrels per day (bpd) would be lost were “scaremongering” and that 5000bpd was a good estimate of the oil flow. It was later revealed by the US Congress that 60,000bpd were flowing out and that BP itself had calculated the flow could be up to 100,000bpd! Crisis communications 101 – if you know something about the problem say so. If you don’t know, say so. Don’t hide facts as these things never stay hidden for long.

Tony Hayward later remarked in an interview that “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” Yep…it’s all muchado about nothing!

These moments of ‘PR gold’ just kept on coming. In an interview on TV, Hayward made the flippant comment that he’d like his life back, angering the families of victims who died in the explosion who said they’d like their loved ones back. He then rubbed salt into already seeping wounds by taking time off to go yacht racing as attempt after attempt to plug the oil leak were failing.

Within weeks the company had lost credibility by refusing to take ownership of the problem and trying to downplay the crisis. Most of the reputation damage had already been done when the company started trying to engage with the public online.

On Twitter: BP were slow to integrate Twitter into their communications mix. They didn’t think to secure their brand identity on Twitter and so when this crisis hit, some guy called Bryan Pendleton has had his Twitter stream contaminated with an influx of BP related tweets.

BP were active on @BP_America prior to the oil rig explosion, using Twitter to mainly syndicate press releases. Yet when the oil rig explosion occurred on April 20th, it took BP over a week to post their first tweet on the topic. Throughout May and June there were a few tweets a day and the brand shied away from engaging directly with the thousands of tweets on the spill and ignored questions, only replying to a handful of comments.

BP Late Response to Oil Spill on Twitter

BP's Twitter Feed at the Time of the Disaster

BP also have to contend with a fake BP Twitter account, @bpglobalpr which has emassed 187,669 followers in comparison to the official Twitter feed’s 18,579 followers.

As time has gone on, BP have got the hang of Twitter and are now posting regular updates – almost on an hourly basis. They have live tweeted from press briefings and hearings, detailed the clean up effort, raised awareness of interviews with the clean up crew and highlighted other communications material such as videos on YouTube. However when the heat was on and people were searching for information and a response from BP, they weren’t there.

On Facebook: Just as on Twitter, BP were slow off the mark on Facebook. The company set up their profile at the end of 2009 and had only 3 updates before May 3rd, 2010 when they started to comment on the oil spill – almost two weeks after the explosion. 37,273 people have now ‘liked’ the page and the company has consistently posted updates on the site…even during weekends and holidays.

On YouTube: Almost a month after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, BP set up a YouTube channel – “Gulf of Mexico Response”.With interviews with key BP staff and footage of the clean up operation, the channel has had over three million views and sits at #76 on the ‘Most Subscribed (All Time) – Sponsors – Global’ list (number 1 on that list is Old Spice).

On Flickr: In May, a BP Flickr photostream was set up with photos of everything from the beaches and wildlife clean up to claims processing posted to the site.

BP Website: BP have also tranformed their website into a virtual newsroom for the “Gulf of Mexico Response” with updates, press releases, videos, links to all the social networking sites and a live feed from multiple remotely operated vehicles in the Gulf of Mexico. The company is also running Google Adwords campaigns to bring people to their key sites.

A Case Study in What NOT to Do…

Drilling for oil is a dangerous business and as such accidents are inevitable. With BP’s deep pockets, one could expect them to have a team of PR people, highly experienced in crisis communications on staff to handle such crises. When this disaster hit, a crisis communications plan, which all key staff members were familiar with, should have been taken off the shelf and rolled out without delay. Then every single tool in the tool belt should have been utilised from day one to ensure that BP were seen to be open, apologetic and tirelessly working to rectify the problem and make amends.

That’s what should have happened. What actually happened was quite difference. BP pointed the finger of blame at others, were insensitive to the victims, tried to fudge the issue and were slow to really start talking to the public about the problem and highlight how they were trying to fix it.

In crisis communications, time is everything. A quick response from the company involved can be the difference between being seen to be responsive – acknowledging the problem and doing everything you can to fix it – and being thought to not give a shit. These days, items from the traditional PR comms toolkit such as holding statements, press releases and media interviews, are complimented by social media tools….all of this adds up to one thing. Companies no longer have any excuse for being slow to comment on a crisis. BP now have a range of communications channels open to the public which are frequently updated. But this may be all too little, too late, to save the brand.