Crisis Communication During the BP Oil Spill

By Whitney Williamson
Nearly a year since the British Petroleum Oil Spill, it becomes easier to pin-point the communication successes and failures.  Naturally, in the midst of the crisis, messages become hazy. And unless a clearly developed crisis plan is in place, an organization can lose its stakeholders to chaos and uncertainty.  That point was continuously stressed by people in charge of the communication efforts during the spill. During a series of recent interviews conducted as part of an SMU Communication class, speakers emphasized the importance of having a solid plan in place in the event of a crisis situation.  From individual tourist bureaus and nonprofit organizations to the Coast Guard, those with a prepared crisis plan, ready to respond to the oil spill crisis, took the lead in addressing the situation.

“The last thing you want to do is create a crisis plan during a crisis,” said  Lt. Sue Kerver of the Coast Guard, pointing to two USCG crisis manuals: the Incident Command Structure and the National Response plan.  During the BP Oil Spill, the Coast Guard adhered to its prepared plan for successfully managing communication efforts.  Lt. Kerver noted that for a crisis plan to be effective, training must be a key component.

“Training made the difference. Since this went from a search and rescue operation to a environmental crisis, the three public information officers here had to triage the work,” she said, walking students through a timeline of the BP explosion on April 20, to the successful capping of the well. “From a communication standpoint, our biggest challenge was deciding whether to go out with what we had, or wait to be sure we had reliable information. We did a lot of course changing.”

Working round the clock, the Coast Guard’s multifaceted communication response included setting up a unified response center, fielding non-stop phone calls, media interviews, press conferences, setting up an informational website, press releases, daily briefings and social media engagement. “We had more than one million friends on our Facebook page within two weeks,” Lt. Kerver commented. “As a communications event, it was unprecedented.”

Another organization ready with an established crisis communication plan was the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, led by Herb Malone. Well aware of the impact the oil spill had on their tourism, Malone stated that “about 65 percent of the business activity we have is in the summer months of June, July and August”.  Malone and his office had to create a plan with a delicate balance of both encouraging people to return to Gulf Shores while still being honest about the situation at hand.   By narrowing the audience to their target, core markets and consistently providing honest information from authoritative sources, they adapted their crisis plan in an effort to boost tourism for the upcoming summer season.

John Deveny of principal of Deveny Public Relations in New Orleans, worked with the Louisiana Office of Tourism after Katrina and the BP oil spill. His office created an experts list, bringing credible sources in to address each of the issues impacting the city after the spill —from experts on seafood safety to pulmonary specialists. Additionally, he put together a press familiarization tour. His proactive communication strategy also included a website feature which focused on one key topic each day. He noted the importance of tracking other crises, to better understand how to handle your own crisis.  For example, after the floods in Nashville, the city focused on milestones, holidays, special events, and festivals to boost Nashville tourism. Deveny applied this formula to Louisiana, and on the 100th day of the oil spill crisis, he launched the “Top 100 Things You Love to Do in Louisiana” campaign. “You have to prepare a proactive and a reactive strategy,” he said.

Although Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill crises may seem similar, communication specialists insist they had to be handled differently. True, the crisis communication used during Katrina paved the way for some effective means of  communication during the oil spill, but they had an entirely different impact on the region. Hurricane Katrina was a crisis that people understood, having been frequently threatened by hurricanes. Most people thought of it as a natural disaster, out of human control. And unlike the oil spill, Katrina was a known entity that did not stretch on for months.  The BP Oil Spill was unlike anything the Gulf Coast had experiences, was a man-made disaster, went on for months, and present unknown components, which further complicate the crisis.

The timing of the two crises effected ways in which the message was disseminated.  Advancements in technology and social media in 2010 allowed for 24/7 communications during the BP Oil Spill, compared to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

These advancements helped drive across key messages, which, say experts, is a crucial element in dealing with a crisis.  One experts, Steve Peyronnin, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, stressed the importance of staying true to your mission’s message even through a crisis.  Peyronnin told SMU students to focus on the long-term goal of your organization and its message rather than the short term. Rather than being confined to what others expect of you or what the media wants you to say, tell your own story and don’t let others interfere with your overall purpose.

“You have to know the personality of your organization to communicate its messages,” he said.  “Stay true to your mission and its message, especially in a crisis. This will help you maintain credibility as well as objectivity.”

Peryronnin also advised students, “Don’t get sucked in by media’s need for a perfect sound bite. Refrain from knee-jerk responses.”

Overall, communication experts advised students to aim for honest, credible, and accurate information. And if you get it wrong, admit it, and quickly correct it. Lt. Kerver noted that during the BP Oil Spill the Coast Guard gave out the information that they later discovered was incorrect. They promptly apologized and issued an immediate correction. Peyronnin stated that credibility is extremely important during a crisis and explained that it was better to defer to someone else for correct information rather than give out incorrect or misleading information.  In Malone’s presentation to students, he emphasized using honest, credible information from authoritative sources when communicating with stakeholders. “From day one the theme of all this was honest, straightforward information from authoritative sources,” Malone said.

One way organizations did this during the spill was by providing daily updates to various stakeholders.  The Coast Guard had daily press conferences to update the public.  Deveny sends out daily e-mail messages to approximately 400 stakeholders with an update on information from the messaging platform to media clips.  Malone and his organization began posting daily videos “shot everyday, first thing in the morning with the day’s information” giving a candid report of the Gulf Shore’s beaches. Providing honest, credible and accurate information serves two purposes.  Most importantly, it protects your organization’s reputation, which has the potential to be very fragile during a crisis.  Secondly, by providing information to the public, it allows you to get your story out before the public and media have a chance to find it.  It is far better to control your own information than to let others mismanage it.

All of the organizations placed a strong emphasis on technology.  From social media to video updates, current technology played an important role in communicating with the various audience affected by the oil spill.  In this day and age, the public expects constant information and gets it from whatever source they can find.  By setting up Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and websites, the various organizations were able to relay accurate and timely information to their audience.

Although each crisis must be treated differently, there are basics that must be followed.  First, an organization must have a plan in place and its people trained before the crisis occurs.  Second, organizations need to construct a clear message and stick with it despite the crisis at hand.  Last, the organization needs to disseminate accurate, credible and honest information through various mediums.  If these steps are followed, an organization stands a better chance of getting the message out, protecting its reputation and surviving a crisis like the BP Oil Spill.

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