BP 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Crisis: What The Specialists Say (Part 1)

This post reveals the results of the second primary research method I used in my BP 2010 crisis case study- specialist interviews. Interviews are a qualitative method of research and the most appropriate one for the purposes of this study as they provide an expertise and add value gained from a source of information, different from the ones already used. For this research, four interviews with four different specialists were conducted – Crisis Communication Specialist, Maritime Law Specialist, Reputation Repair Specialist and Oil Industry Specialist. As this section is quite a long one I will separate it in two parts. The first part will reveal the results from the Crisis Communication Specialist (CCS) and the Reputation Repair Specialist (RRS) interviews. The second part which will be posted next week will reveal what findings have been made out of the Maritime Law Specialist (MLS) and the Oil Industry Specialist (OIS) interviews.

The crisis communication specialist interview revealed major issues related to BP’s strategy in theoretical terms applying some of the main Situational Crisis Communication (SCCT) principles. It also shed light on BP’s relations with its shareholders and investors and explained the sudden shift of strategy in the beginning of 2013. Similar to the content analysis, the interviews were also separated in three main periods during the BP crisis – Early Period (Victims Cluster) – April-October 2010, Shareholders/ Investors Period – April-December 2012 and Strategic Shift Period – February-August 2013.

Crisis Communication Specialist Interview (CCS)

In the early period of the crisis, BP chose to use two main strategies proposed by SCCT – compensation and apology. However, the question is whether these were the most appropriate strategies and could the company have used some additional ones in order to strengthen its crisis response campaign. According to the CC specialist, BP made the right choice by using compensation and apology in the early stages of its campaign as it had no other alternative. As a worldwide company which spilled a massive amount of oil it could not have done anything else but to apologise and try to compensate those who were affected; any other strategy apart from these two would have made the situation even worse. However, even though these were the best options for BP, they did not have the positive effect it was aiming at because as a wealthy company it was the main target and the whole responsibility was attributed to it. Moreover, BP was probably prepared for some sort of a crisis, but it definitely lacked an adequate preparation for a crisis of this scale.

In the early phase of the crisis, BP hit the bottom on June 25, 2010 with $27.02 per share. However, it managed to recover quickly and six months later the share price rose by 40%. According to the CC specialist, one reason for that was the company’s decision to replace its British chief executive Tony Hayward with the American Robert Dudley. As the interviewee said, the ex-chief executive “was a dead man walking, saying the wrong things at the wrong time and his reputation was unrecoverable” so there was no way the company could continue with him. Moreover, the fact that the new chief executive was American was a courtesy to the USA and had its positive effects.

The CC specialist was not aware that BP was fined by SEC in the autumn of 2012 but agreed that the fact BP lied to its investors and shareholders broke their trust. Moreover the interviewee expressed an opinion that this event has pushed the company into signing the settlement with the Department of Justice in November 2012. And the fact the settlement resulted in absurd claims and compensation payments was a breaking point in BP’s strategy when the company switched from defence to attack and started targeting its investors and shareholders as definitive stakeholders, putting them at “the heart of its strategy”.

Reputation Repair Specialist Interview (RRS)

The RRS interview gave a new perspective to the research in terms of BP’s reputation repair strategy throughout the overall period of the crisis.

Similar to the the opinion of the CC specialist, the reputation repair specialist also said that BP is perceived as a British company on the American market rather than as a global one. The interviewee also added that BP was attributed the overall responsibility because this is how it was portrayed in the media and also because it tried to distance itself from the other companies, which remained invisible straight after the explosion. Another important thing that was pointed out by the reputation repair specialist was that most of the other companies involved in the incident are American. Moreover, Halliburton is aligned to the previous presidential team (George Bush’s team), so they were perceived as a patriotic firm and nobody attacked them. One reason why the rest of the companies have not been harmed by the crisis and their shares even rose after it, according to the RRS was that BP lost its government contracts while the other companies did not. For instance Halliburton did US Federal Government contracts, Federal Defence contracts and so on. BP, on the other hand, did not have the Government support.

Similar to the other interviewees, the RRS was not aware about the SEC fine. The reputation specialist expressed an opinion that some investors like the pension funds choose the companies they invest in because they are big not because they are ethical so BP lying about the true amount of oil spilled into the ocean should not have been such a big problem. In terms of the settlement BP probably did not look at the wording adequately.

The next post which will be the second part of the interviews results, will give a legal perspective to the research and will look into the compensation agreement and the fraudulent claims that followed in more detail.

Lidiya Kirilova

Why Social Media Should be Part of Crisis Communication

Social media is now appropriate for all sorts of communication- B2C, B2B, H2H, P2P etc. but is it any good for crisis communication? The answer is yes. Social media has initiated a change in the way crisis communication functions nowadays. The influence it has is highlighted in the following ways: speed, engagement, control of the message, interactivity, authenticity, visibility & transparency, crisis facilitation etc.

Crisis-communications

The crisis life cycle has three stages- pre-crisis, crisis and post-crisis. The pre-crisis stage should normally be planning of the worst case scenario. In this stage, social media could be involved as a communication tool with some of the organisation’s stakeholder groups. Depending on the type of organisation and the type of the crisis, these could be affected customers, victims and the public in general. What is important for the crisis managers to recognise, is the right messages they need to address to their publics and the type of social platforms that would be most appropriate to use.

The crisis phase occurs when the actual crisis hits. I have actually participated in two crisis simulations, both of which were handled using social media. I had to manage one of the crisis communication teams and guide them throughout the whole period of the crisis. As mentioned earlier, social media is a perfect communication tool for the organisation in crisis, especially with the affected parties. In our case the organisation was a university and the crisis itself was a malware bug that had hit the system, deleting all files of a large group of students, meaning they would not have been able to graduate. So part of these students went on Facebook and Twitter, posting updates and comments, demanding answers to these rumours (nothing regarding the crisis was officially confirmed). So my team had to reply to the students in a polite way, giving them the information they were demanding, but not saying too much at the same time.

When talking to your target audience on social media, the tone of voice is the most important thing. Another thing of great importance is to make sure the message you are communicating is the most appropriate one. When a crisis hits, the first thing the affected parties will do sm-crisisis to panic. But you as a crisis communicator must not panic! If you act with composure, you will be able to calm your target audience down, at least to some extent. Why social media is very useful in a time of crisis is because you are able to communicate your message directly to your target audience without the need of an intermediary, which in 99,9% of the cases would be the traditional media (which sometimes results in the so called “broken phone”). Of course, the media will give its point of view (which in most cases is at the expense of the organisation in crisis- e.g. BP Gulf of Mexico crisis), but through social media, you have given yours as well.

The third stage of the crisis life cycle – post-crisis – occurs when/if the organisation survives the crisis. At this stage social media is also very useful because the audience wants to see, first of all, what lessons the organisation has learnt from the crisis and second of all, what steps it takes to prevent another.

Many crisis managers, especially those of smaller organisations, still underestimate the importance of social media, not recognising the need of two-way communication and engagement with their target audiences. However, as the popularity of social media is growing, it has the potential of becoming an integral part of crisis communication, providing organisations with the opportunity to “do things right”.

Lidiya Kirilova