Around a year ago, post-graduate PR student Phoebe Rowell contacted me about her final-year dissertation – which investigated the impact of social media on crisis communications. Specifically, Phoebe used BP’s calamitous Deepwater Horizon oil spill as the guiding example for her work, and her recently-published interview with ‘BP’s head of crisis communications’ makes for fascinating reading.
I don’t know who this particular BP executive is and, given the guarantee of anonymity, Phoebe is not about to tell me. I have my suspicions but, in any case, it doesn’t particularly matter. For my money, the interview represents one of the most intimate examinations of the public relations fallout from a landmark crisis.
Phoebe has kindly let me post some extracts from the interview; the full transcript is here.
There has been no shortage of post-mortem comment regarding the BP crisis, and this publication is not excepted. When Phoebe asks what comms activities the company should have focused on, the BP comms head says:
“Earlier focus on explaining the complexity of the problem BP was trying to solve…(and)…More effective information discipline across such a wide and hastily formed team”
Also of note, are the comments regarding BP’s crisis preparedness:
“Plans typically look at operational side of things – and what’s much more difficult to recognise is the communications side. We’re good at running plants, we’ve made a lot of money from it, and when it goes wrong, we can handle it, we have specially trained people. When all the media looking at you, it puts a tremendous strain on things, and people draw their own conclusions, because that’s the mechanism that they hear about what’s happening.”
The impact of social media is discussed at length. It is candidly admitted that BP did not incorporate YouTube, Flickr or Facebook, for example, into any crisis comms plans – all while its critics made adept use of Twitter, in particular. “We should have that integration and understand how they can impact you.”
It is hard to escape the conclusion that BP’s crisis plans were swiftly overtaken by the sheer magnitude of the unfolding drama. And like many companies, BP was also ill-prepared for the social media dimension.
Yet there is little acknowledgement of perhaps the most important factor in BP’s fall from grace: Its efforts to create an image that was detached from the reality of the company’s behaviour. In the years leading up to Deepwater Horizon, BP pledged to make safety a priority and move ‘beyond petroleum’. The oil spill brought the company rudely back down to earth.