Communicating in crisis

There’s really nothing to say at this point about what’s happening in the Gulf Coast. The images capture it all.

I’m always interested in how companies communicate in a crisis. While initially BP seemed to take ownership of the spill and the continued leakage and used words like “transparent” and “responsible,” they also shifted blame to the oil rig operators themselves, some of whom died. Not the best tactic and probably a fundamental reason that the CEO didn’t do many interviews after this one on May 3.

British Tony was a flop, and it appears that he was soon replaced by a new spokesperson, an American, COO Doug Suttles. In fact, on the Today Show just yesterday, Matt Lauer brought up a quote by Hayward in which he describes the environmental impact to be “very, very modest” and asks Suttles if he stands by Hayward’s depiction. Suttles, while clearly wanting to defend Hayward, is forced to admit that the damage is, and will be, significant.

The problem really comes down to what agencies call “acceptable risks.” At some point, it was decided that an explosion and spill such as this could very well happen but that there was either a low probability for occurrence or that the costs would be relatively insignificant (compared to the benefit of such operation) . Whatever calculations were made for this scenario, there was a breakdown in the communication or simply a blatant disregard to living things. Choose one or both, and it’s still a failure.

Let’s face it, no matter what the investigation finds, the recovery to an already devastated community still reeling from Hurricane Katrina will take decades. Good PR and rhetoric cannot overcome that.