October 19, 2021

What Everyone Can Learn From One of the Biggest Crisis Communications Disasters

By Reed McIntire

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Courtesy of Kris Krug on WikiMedia Commons

Having a good crisis plan is a crucial part of operating a business efficiently. It goes without saying that a crisis can happen at any time, whether you’re ready for it or not. To effectively combat one, a business must always be prepared for the worst case scenario. Unfortunately, that is not always the case as I’m sure we can all recall a few crisis communication disasters in the past few years. However, just because these examples are not ideal scenarios, doesn’t mean we all can’t learn something from them.

One of the most notorious examples of bad crisis communications in recent years was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Once word got out about the spill and its scope, BP decided to throw their contractors and workers under the bus. The CEO notoriously told the press that “You know, I’d like my life back,” in a shocking display of cavalier attitude. More than that, BP continued to make empty promises all while not conveying information about the actual work being done to plug the leak. The company maintained that the environment would return to normal quickly, despite a lack of evidence supporting the claim.

It became quickly clear that BP’s handling of the situation left a lot to be desired. After all, the spill not only affected the ecosystem in the Gulf, but also the livelihood and well-being of everyone in the surrounding communities. Accountability, transparency, and action were needed, not vague apologies that were just the bare minimum.

BP CEO Tony Hayward
Courtesy of Committee of Energy and Commerce on Flickr

So what? Why is this important now?

While the events that occurred 10 years ago in the Gulf of Mexico have long passed, the lessons we can learn are still relevant to us today. BP’s reputation has been forever tarnished by the crisis and their handling of the situation. In order to avoid that, we all should examine what went wrong and how to avoid it.

First, be open and honest with the affected publics. During a crisis, people are likely to assume the worst and want answers for what is happening. When there are no available answers, the public and the media are going to start making assumptions, none of which will help the situation. That’s why when handling a crisis, an organization needs to make information available and be honest with what they say.

Second, you must be sincere. It was pretty clear that the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward just wanted the situation to go away by any means necessary. This attitude was reflected in his statements which conveyed that his only concern was the company not the damage done to the environment. Of course this earned him even more negative press. So, in order to avoid the same thing happening again, an organization and its leadership need to show the public that they genuinely care about what is happening. It’s not enough to phone it in, trust and care need to be reestablished.

Finally, take responsibility and act. When handling their crisis, BP not only threw their workers under the bus, they also managed to screw up the clean up. It took 3 months for the well to be plugged and in that time, countless animals and people were affected. Any crisis needs to be dealt with promptly. Do not drag your feet when it comes to crises, a lack of speed shows unpreparedness as well as a lack of ethics and care within the organization.

In short, BP’s handling of the situation proved that a lack of transparency, speed, and care in an organization’s crisis response can be a death sentence for its reputation. While the actual scenario may be resolved, the mutual trust and care between an organization and its publics take much longer to rebuild. In the case of BP, it is still a work in progress. We should learn from these mistakes so we do not make them in our own lives. 

4 thoughts on “What Everyone Can Learn From One of the Biggest Crisis Communications Disasters

  1. Reed, I think your blog post really brings to light just how easy it is to ruin a consumers trust when it comes to poor crisis communications. Even in high school before critically looking companies branding and messaging I knew that BP had a terrible reputation. This is going to last for a long time with our generation and really won’t go away as a prime example of crisis comms going terribly wrong.

  2. Loved this post. It’s so easy to tell nowadays if a company is being sincere or not. Sincerity and honesty, as you talked about, are so big in crisis management. In today’s public world, I feel like reputation is everything and how you handle disasters like this can literally make or break your company.

  3. Very well thought out discussion on one of the most impactful PR disasters in the last twenty years. Strategic crisis communication is one of the most important factors a company needs to do successfully in order to stay on top of a threatening situation. Honesty with key publics is the only way to maintain integrity.

  4. Reed, you offer some great insight into one of the biggest PR disasters we have seen in the recent years. I also wrote about crisis management and this is a great example of how a company should NOT handle a crisis. Well done!

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