I’ve been observing the BP corporate crisis communications efforts from a distance. And needless to say – I’m not the only one. Commenting on a crisis is easy, but anyone who has dabbled professionally with a real crisis knows that there are a heck of a lot more variables to consider in the epicentrum of the storm than there is outside of it.
Working with human beings in the middle of a media storm, you soon realize that they are in fact acting rationally – from their point of view. Unfortunately, it seldom looks rational from the outside.
When fellow Swede Carl-Henrik Svanberg, BPs chairman of the board, called some of the victims “small people”, it was quickly described as a PR disaster. Personally, I don’t agree. You have to give people some credit. It sure was a stupid way to put it, but of course people understood that it was a fuck-up due to language, not values.
There were also a lot of criticism about how long time it took for BP to respond. The company should have repsonded sooner, experts concluded. But I’m not sure that better news media service really had made that much of a difference… Of course, it’s good form to respond to queries in a timely manner; being more alert and more responsive might have had a soothing effect on the angry public, but is that really the issue here?
The PR problem for BP is that they have caused a natural disaster of epic proportions. Sure, people are angry and they want someone to blame. But people’s true feelings shouldn’t be made into a PR problem.
The true PR problem is that when BP does good things, for instance trying their hardest to fix the damage they’ve cased, their actions simply doesn’t matter in the eyes of the public. The news media logic even dictates it; if you’re a bad company, don’t expect to be treated fairly. Never expect a proportional response from the news media.
That is why you need spin in a crisis. The news media response will be unproportional and you need to act decisively and be communicative around what you are doing, instead of getting lost in the news media blame game.
BP PR must make sure that all actions addressing the natural disaster really count. For the environment, for the people, and of course also for the company. Cause that is a problem in a crisis – you try to do your best in a difficult situation, but “good intentions” does no longer apply to you. You won’t get any easy votes casted your way.
If you communicate poorly, your actions won’t count. And that is the real PR problem here.
For a company like BP, there aren’t any popularity prizes to win anytime soon – no matter what they say or do. The simple truth of the matter is; if you’ve fucked up the environment like that, then you better take action in order to repair it, however long it will take. You can answer all questions coming your way, you can prioritize the media 24/7, but what good will that alone do you or the environment?
Focus instead on the mess you’ve created. Fix it, and communicate in such a manner that you’ll be able to do so as promptly as possible. All BP communications decisions should have been tested by this question: “Will this specific communication effort help save the environment from the damage we caused?”
If yes, communicate. If no, don’t.
This might actually prove to be good business. All that money that BP now is handing over to the US government, well they should have been given proactively, right? Before Barack Obama basically had to ask for them in person. The money is of course the same to the victims, but for the BP brand they are worth significantly less when paid as a severe fine rather than given on their own initiative.
Good PR in bad times is therefore all about creating the freedom to act responsibly. Talk alone won’t repair anything, but actions might. When everyone hates you, you won’t get the benefit of the doubt. Interpretations won’t swing your way. And that’s the way it should be, because all actions has consequences, and now the blame is all on you.
It’s like life, really. If you’ve done something really bad, at least apologize before someone demands an apology from you. If nothing else, a crisis might just be the perfect time to show the world the true values of your organization by showing character and not asking for any sympathies in return. And that sure is beyond both news media blame games and language lessons.
- A Year of PR Case Studies (pr-hamster.com)
- BP’s PR campaign fails to clean up reputation after Gulf oil spill | John Vidal (guardian.co.uk)
- The Center for Public Integrity: BP’s Iris Cross starred in two disaster PR campaigns (huffingtonpost.com)
- Lawsuits fly in BP’s Gulf spill blame game – Reuters (news.google.com)
- Can BP’s Image Survive the Spill? (time.com)
- BP sues Halliburton, rig owner over oil spill (business.financialpost.com)
- Tips on Crisis Communication by Neil Chapman (prweekend.blogspot.com)