Online Crisis Communications Case Study

Petroleum giant BP is currently embroiled in a huge crisis in the Gulf of Mexcio where one its wells sprung a leak and is currently releasing significant amounts of crude oil into the ocean. The protest against this calamity are well documented through the aggregation of images, web apps, Google Map mash-ups, and parody Twitter feeds springing up while social media and communications pundits are happy to play armchair quarterback to “advise” BP on how to deal with the crisis.

It’s important to remember two things while discussing this issue:

1. No matter what people say, this is not a “Public Relations Disaster (TM)”; it is an operational issue – not communications; and

2. Noone feels worse or is working harder to fix the issue than the folks at BP

So, getting past the fact that this is an operational issue, I am very impressed by the online communications efforts BP is undertaking to keep the public and its stakeholders informed.

Take a look at this appended screen shot of the home page and see for yourself the efforts the organization is going to:

  • The home has been turned into a dynamic online news room
  • Multimedia plays a large role including: live streaming from the ocean floor, updates and in depth technical briefings which run to great depth (no pun intended)
  • Collaboration plays a large scale role – to the extent that BP explicitly asks for suggestions “Do you have ideas to help us?”
  • Social media outposts are called out
  • External links are prominent – showing BP knows it is part of a larger effort to fix this issue Home Page - Crisis Communications Case Study

You can also download this as a PDF.

On another note, I found the technical briefing videos incredibly refreshing and interesting, in a geeky sort of way. It gave me tremendous confidence that the company knows what it is doing and has its best experts on the case. You can view the latest briefing online.

This is a terrible issue for all people involved. It will have long lasting effects on the environment, the local residents and on the organization. But contrary to what you may read in the sensationalist corners of the blogosphere, within BP, people are doing their jobs and doing them well under extreme pressure and trying circumstances. Jumping on and criticising people just distracts them from the work at hand. I’m happy to give kudos to the BP communications and web team.

Of course, this also goes back to the almost paramount importance of understand what a Dark Site is and then building one. You can never know what you’ll need it for but this underscores the fact that you need the framework built and the process to populate it.

EDIT: BP_America (Tweeting since Aug 2008 with c10k followers and now, cleverly a “Verified Account”) has a static tally of the efforts the company is going to on its Twitter background and BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has started to post multiple updates. BP’s YouTube channel has started to upload and aggregate interviews with its CEO.

BP_America Twitter Background

UPDATE 2: H&K’s insightful Chris Gidez on BP’s PR response: What does BP Need? — The Manhattan Project of Reputation Programs, via @DoctorJones.

One cannot fault BP on its commitment to communication. No company has ever invested as much in terms of people resources, money and tools in order to connect with its many stakeholders.

And frankly its latest ads — “We will get it done. We will make this right.” – are bold, impactful and show heart. People will now wait to see if BP delivers on the promise.

Indeed. Per the ire of many commenters below, making the promise is easy, delivering on that promise is the hard part. We should all hope that the organization can.

UPDATE 3: Clint Hocking (@ClickNothing – noted with irony!) reports that BP is also purchasing search terms across Google and Yahoo! in an effort to ensure people searching for information are shown their side of the story. Aside from the sensationalist headline (“BP buys Google, Yahoo search words to keep people away from real news on Gulf oil spill disaster”), this is an excellent tactic which I have also used in other online issues management scenarios.

UPDATE 4: Harvard Business Review quite sensibly says we should be supporting the BP employees trying to fix this situation, not castigating them for the sins of their fathers.


15 Responses to Online Crisis Communications Case Study

  1. kerry says:

    Dude, are you kidding? This has been not only one of the worst environmental disasters of our lifetime, but an unmitigated PR one as well.

    From lying outright about the volume, to BP executive comments like “it’s a big ocean”…This has been handled worse than almost anything I can think of.

    It’s been worse on the ground where journalists and the media have been denied access to whole areas of the gulf coast from the local authorities who have said outright that BP is in control.

    No one has been allowed within miles of the spill site on water either, under threat of attack from the coast guard.

    Come on my friend, a case study should be about results and deeper investigation than this.

  2. kerry says:

    Are you kidding. Course I would let James Cameron loose, as he’s now been asked to do. The man helped pioneer a new age in underwater photography, submersibles and robotics…Damn rights i’d have him in the room.

    What’s needed now is original thinking, we need a way to solve this crisis and anyone who can shed light on the situation and the more importantly the perils of deep water exploration should be brought to the table.

    More to my point.

  3. Chris says:

    ARe you seriously giving BP a pass because they spent a few thousand dollars on a website? “BP” does not “feel bad”. BP is a company trying to cut it’s losses in any way it can. They are not trying to fix the environmental disaster – they are trying to fix the financial disaster that will result.

    BP knows that a web search for EXXON, 20 years later, brings up their corporate website, and about 20 other pages about the Valdez disaster, and they are trying to prevent that from happening. I’d be willing to bet they are already working on rebranding to distance themselves within the next few years.

    What BP needed to do was to put the call out to anyone willing to help clean up this mess, and write some blank cheques.

    • Ed Lee says:

      Chris – if you reread my post I hope you’ll understand the point I’m trying to make.

      What would you do with your blank cheque?

  4. ana.g says:

    I feel this comment needs to start with… Dudes,

    I’m going to have to go with Kerry on this one. Just because they have the right “widgets” in place, doesn’t mean they’re doing right by it. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope BP is well meaning with their apparent candor. But given how things have been handled this far, I would not be surprised if this is just a bit of smoke and mirrors to appease the public and quench overwhelming demand for transparency.

    Lastly while I appreciate the efforts to engage the over all population in a dialog I must say that “Do you have ideas to help us?” in this case provides little confidence. This is one problem that should not rely on crowd sourcing.

  5. kerry says:

    In fact Ed the more that I think about this the more disappointed I am in such a smart guy as yourself spouting such crap.

    This is horribly indicative of all the things that are wrong with our industry, where glossy pictures and broad statements are held aloft as value and substance. Where is the honesty, the engagement, the transparency?

    Too much of what we do is focused on what our clients want to say and how they want to say it, as opposed to what the public wants to know. Enough I say. Lets start adding that value, talking honestly and bringing customers into the fold.

    Nothing and I mean nothing should be said to put BP in a positive light. Not until such time that the leak is stopped, the mess cleaned up and measures put in place to stop this from ever happening again.

  6. David Jones says:

    If I can remain dispassionate about this crisis and park many of the mis-steps that led to this operational issue in the first place I can appreciate the tactical response that BP has undertaken here.

    There have certainly been some PR blunders, but that’s not because they’ve circled the wagons and refused to issue anything but written statements. I wouldn’t say they are blazing any new trails in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude in terms of messaging, but to Ed’s point, there is some interesting use of modern tactics.

    Will it matter to BP if they become as despised as Exxon was following the Valdez spill? At least Exxon had a drunk ship’s captain to lay the blame on and hey, Exxon’s still a pretty big business the last I checked. It’s sad, but true.

    • kerry says:

      The saddest thing about this is that once it’s all wrapped up, years potentially, BP will go on about their business like very little happened. Maybe short a billion or two, but like Exxon that’s pocket change.

      As to Ed’s points, i’m still at a loss. How are they making use of new technology and modern tactics? The guy making fun of them has 100,000 more twitter followers, no bloggers have been allowed to talk to BP execs or employees on the ground in the gulf, hell even CNNhad to ask permission to tap into the feed from BP controlled underwater cameras.

      Nope sorry, it’s business as usual down there and while we theoretically have better access, the one thing i’d say BP is doing well is behaving like an old world corporation.

    • It’s also worth noting that Exxon was originally tasked with $5 billion in punitive damages (a single year’s profit) in damages for its Valdez oil spill. After years in court, appeals and appeals, it got that down to about $500 million. It will be interesting to see how much BP actually pays out after it drags all of the lawsuits through the courts for as long as it can…

      The real winners here will be the lawyers.

  7. eva says:

    This goes way deeper than an operational issue. It’s Tony Hayward being self serving and going on a huge media blitzkrieg to salvage his own reputation and that of his already faltering company.

    Unlike your blog comments,this is very much a post operational PR disaster. After realizing the scope of the spill, Hayward tried to go all greenpeace with his pathetic i’m “deeply sorry” for this “tragedy that never should have happened’rant. What really caps off this hollywood performance are the crying birds in the background…

    It’s too little too late. Glossy pics and a website aren’t gonna cut it here.

  8. […] Interesting assessment of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster by @edlee [link to post] Some lively comments to the […]

  9. […] #oilspill analysis shows challenge of dispassionate dissection of PR effort by bit parts @edlee [link to post]. (Via […]

  10. […] RT @jangles: Interesting assessment of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster by @edlee [link to post] Some lively comments to the […]

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