The oil rig disaster and resulting oil slick that threatens the Gulf Coast is the biggest test of a crisis communications plan that I have seen in years. Sure Toyota’s troubles have been unprecedented and attracted intense media scrutiny, but they don’t compare to the environmental impact that this BP spill may have on entire cities and industries that are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. This event – precipitated by the failure of just one oil rig pumping oil for BP – is more than an environmental disaster; it’s a human disaster.
The pressure on BP is enormous to prove they are pulling out all the stops to get the spill controlled and to clean up the oil that’s fingering out towards the shores of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. The public relations challenge for BP is herculean and, in some respects, impossible. They are in damage control mode. There is no upside to an event like this and that fact simplifies the communications strategy. Be contrite, roll up your sleeves and prove that you’re ready to work hard to regain people’s trust.
That message was delivered effectively through BP Group CEO Tony Hayward, who made the rounds of the major networks early Monday morning. He appeared tie-less, haggard and apologetic. The backdrop for his interviews: a NASA-style command center bustling with determined looking scientist types. (BP would like us to believe all these people were trying to get the spill controlled and cleaned up; I’d like to believe that too).
Questions are swirling about BP (and the U.S. government’s) slow response to the burning oil rig. A little distance is needed from this event to fully analyze how well both of them responded. Will they be able to control the spill? Will they foot the bill for the cleanup? In a situation like this, a communications strategy is only as good as the actions that back it up. We all hope they are as unprecedented as this oil spill.