Crisis communications planning gets unfairly tarred by oil spill critic

On June 15, U.S. Congressman Bart Stupak (D – MI) issued a statement on “misplaced priorities” of oil companies in the wake of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  In it, he uses the ExxonMobil oil spill response plan to draw conclusions about oil industry lack of preparedness.  Stupak concludes that the plans are “great public relations….  But these plans are virtually worthless when an actual spill occurs.   And that’s exactly the kind of misplaced priorities that led to this disaster.”

In my opinion, Congressman Stupak’s conclusion is murky. 

Don’t get me wrong – history will eventually assign plenty of shared blame for the Deepwater Horizon situation.  The events leading up to the oil spill, the BP “responsible party” efforts to stop the leak, the ongoing and future clean-up work and the public relations responses all deserve to be scrutinized, heavily.  However, the Congressman’s buckshot against the oil industry hits crisis communications planning with collateral damage.  And that’s counterproductive.

It is perfectly appropriate for oil companies to have crisis communications plans to help manage public concern, misconceptions and misinformation in a crisis.  It’s equally appropriate to have pre-written examples to remind spokespeople to express the empathy that they may already feel.  “Great public relations,” which Stupak condemns, should be integrated into any response to a crisis. 

Ironically, the Congressman’s statement illustrates his skill in shaping public opinion through out-of-context sound bites – one of many tactics that good crisis management plans anticipate and address. 

Want proof?  In one part of his statement, Stupak counts the number of pages dedicated to different response disciplines (40 for media response, nine for oil removal, five for resource protection).  He uses these page counts to draw an absurd conclusion about the intent of ExxonMobil’s approach to crisis preparedness.  In fact, I have often advocated shorter, more actionable crisis plans as long as companies train teams to manage situations with those shorter plans.

Now, I don’t have a line of sight into the actual plan the Congressman reviewed.  To give due credit, his statement did inadvertently raise two specific yellow flags.  1) To me, a 500-page crisis plan sounds like “binderism” at its worst.  2) The thirteen Swiss-cheese press releases indicate an inefficient and delusional crisis plan, in my opinion – it’s impossible to predict nuances of crisis situations in advance. 

I understand what’s at play here and Congressman Stupak has an obligation to address the public’s anger by holding the oil industry accountable.  I get it.  For my part, I have the same obligation to defend public communications as an important – not superficial – part of any crisis management response.  Crisis planning is a key element of that response.

I’d love your thoughts on this, in the comments section below.

8 thoughts on “Crisis communications planning gets unfairly tarred by oil spill critic”

  1. JD, I agree with what you say as a general rule. I haven't seen the plan and don't know what is in it, but I do have the tiniest fraction of inside knowledge which may help explain the nature of the plan.

    A few years ago, BP suffered a terrible event in which a number of workers died. One of the things they learnt from that experience is that crises are incredibly emotional events for everyone involved. While events involving deaths tend to be labelled as worker deaths, management failures, as though there is a clear divide between workers and managers, the reality is often vastly different. They discovered that while people could focus on actions in that situation, when it came to talking to the media and communicating, the emotional situation made things incredibly hard, and people made mistakes.

    So I suspect that the focus on the communications/media side is designed to help spokespeople focus on the importance of the communication and find ways to emotionally deal with having to communicate. When we lose people close to us, many of us prefer having something to do, rather than having to talk about it.

    This emotional and personal side of a crisis is often overlooked by people commenting from a distance on "crisis communications" and one of the reasons why we should wait to evaluate actions and communications.

    All the best, geoff

    1. Thanks for your "tiny fraction" of insiderism, Geoff. I have to assume that you're speaking of the Texas refinery situation, which is also getting some press lately, mostly driven by the plaintiffs' lawyer. In that coverage, I've also seen a demonization of crisis planning in general, which is unfortunate.

      Again, the caveat is that I have no line of sight into the actual plans. But reminding spokespeople to express compassion — which many of them already feel, but don't know how to convey under the hot lights — is not a bad thing.

  2. There is a problem here with pointing fingers at Crisis Communication planning as the scapegoat.

    In an article called Some Inconvenient Truths in the Independent it was reported that in the report produced by the Deepwater Horizon Study Group led by Prof. Robert Bea of the Centre for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Bea concludes that an enterprise was undertaken for which, if something went wrong, there was no immediate remedy.

    This points to a failure of BP's planning and a failure of regulation. It is also a filaure of Risk Management in BP.

    Perhaps BP did not respond well to the communications part of the crisis. However that is again a failure of management. Management formulates the messages, and gives authority for them to be released.

    What is worrying is that in a number of articles issues have emerged – words like complanency, 740 safety deviations (reported ones) and systemic failure.

    From an OD (Organisational Development ) perspective, there are problems at a systemic level in BP and it seems that some of this must have filtered through to the Crisis managers.

    So, what am I do do now? I have got one of those BP videos that featured Lord Browne saying '' That we believe no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment"'.

    Oh, how they must rue Browne's leaving. Messages get distorted and this is the culmination of it.

    – Improper well

    1. Thanks, Deon. Agree that there may be a basket full of specific problems to crisis mitigation and building the right response capabilities. Time will provide insights there. However, the specific charges by the Congressman — where he speaks about plan-parts out-of-context — are nothing more than political pandering in my view. Unnecessary, given where the focus should be.

  3. It is hard to fully understand this crisis yet, not least because of the extraordinary politicization of just about every aspect. One of these days, maybe years away, court litigation will eventually clarify who did what and and what time and who was responsible. And it sure as heck won't just be BP. But right now there are too many armchair experts offering dumb opinions on little or no factual basis. You need only look at the hysterical media coverage of that fact that Hayward took a day off to go sailing. Sadly this whole matter will remain deeply obscured for months and probably years. For what it is worth, my opinion is that BP and many others need to focus right now mainly on the fact that the well is STILL spewing out into the Gulf of Mexico, not the number of pages of a crisis plan. That's the crisis, not PR, not individual spokespersons and not certainly not endless political posturiing. Just remember that when the Ixtoc well leaked in the southern Gulf of Mexico in the 1970's – one of the largest oil spills of all time – it took more than nine months to finally seal it off. Hopefully the politicians will have moved on by then

    1. Agree 100%, Tony. They need to manage the problem, not the image right now.

      Thanks for participating here — your input is always welcome.

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