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.