I don’t like to “rate” crisis responses as they’re unfolding, but I suppose you could glean lessons from the 4th inning of a baseball game when they’re evident. Thus, I decided to join the opinionated crowd by responding to a question posed on a LinkedIn PR News Group discussion on “What are the top 3 crisis management lessons you’ve learned from the BP oil spill?”
Here are expansions from my short replies, with links that help round-out perspectives.
1) Companies that take great business risks must have a commensurate risk management system when things go ker-plewy.It’s easy to criticize BP, if you enjoy fishing out of a barrel. BP is the designated “responsible party” among all responders of the Joint Incident Command, and as such, the lead butt to kick. BP also has a history of mishaps and mammoth profits that make many uncomfortable. Their executives have certainly made some blunders…even before the spill. (Describing risk calculations in “three little pigs” terminology is colossally stupid, and the company’s oil spill response plans were based on unrealistic data.)
Of course, several parties were pushing limits to get oil out of the deep sea bed, without the equal attention to the safety net required in taking such risks. Learning nothing from White Star, this was akin to not having enough lifeboats on the Titanic. Those involved include BP, Transocean, Halliburton and the government’s formerly-named Minerals Management Service. More analysis is required to untangle the blame.
(Sidebar: Some claim that NIMBY-leaning politicians and NGOs forced the risky deep-sea extraction over the more experienced shallow drilling. In my opinion, that doesn’t excuse the lack of worst-case scenario planning.)
2) When large crises occur, EVERYONE has vested interests and those motives must be considered when listening to any POV.
There’s a deep sea of opinions on this disaster and each of those opinions – including mine – are tethered to a vested interest. For example, in the last month, I have read quotes from environmental advisors, NGO and activist spokespeople, crisis management experts and pundits (not always the same thing), academics, leadership coaches, research labs, politicians, plaintiffs’ bar lawyers, and celebrities. Of course, there’s also the oil industry spokespeople and the myriad individuals, businesses and organizations that are victims of the spill.
Each of these audiences has a motive, which is not always made clear in media coverage. And I’m not convinced that the public has a mature filter to always appreciate those vested interests. When those interests aren’t disclosed or evident, it creates an unbalanced playing field for companies trying to manage reputations under siege.
3) PR people and crisis pundits spend far too much time analyzing the tactics of these situations without a deeper understanding of the business, geo-political, BCM and incident-management elements. We degrade our profession in doing so, in my view.
Maybe this answer was unfair. Maybe I should have said “…too much time analyzing the tactics and the misquotes of these situations….”
Take CEO Tony Heyward. Should Heyward have attended that yacht race? Probably not. However, world
leaders and generals don’t typically get that much negative attention when they take a day off to re-charge during a war. Did he make mis-statements? Absolutely. That’s going to happen when you provide 10,000 statements and one misquote slips through. Of course, the misquote gets massive attention, much more than any of the other 9,999 statements.
As one CSR expert noted, fixating on these type of things are “easy points to score.” Sad, then, that so many in our industry feel the need to harp on superficialities, without demonstrating a deeper understanding of the complexity of the situation.
For example, how many PR experts fully understand the complexity of the incident response? Or, for that matter, understand that the future of the Joint Incident Information Center hangs in the balance, based on some key changes made by the White House?
Crisis management of this magnitude cannot and should not be analyzed solely in the context of a bad quote or superficial misstep. Doing so calcifies the belief among C-suite business leaders that ours remains the profession of image polishing. Many of us have advanced far beyond that stereotype. Let’s start behaving like it.
Comments welcome below, as usual.
July 20 update: I added a link to the response to answer #2 above — a timely article on academics weighing ethical questions on doing research tied to financial interests on either side of the crisis.
Aug. 9 update: I added a story from The New York Times on researchers scramble for funding, now that the well appears to be plugged.
Dec. 20 update: Gerald Baron provides this post with his “top five response management lessons” from the BP spill. In summary, these are:
- Top Level Engagement in Crisis Planning
- The Scale of Planning is Increased
- Public Participation the New Norm
- A Premium on Accurate Information
- Reputation Management Focused on Those Who Matter Most
Dec. 24 Update: BP has made the summary of findings from its incident investigation available to the public, so I’m providing it here. I’m also providing a link to this story from The New York Times, where plaintiff lawyers are unhappy with Kenneth Feinberg’s suggestion that victims receive compensation through the established fund, not through the courts.
June 11, 2012 Update: A very good post by Gerald Baron about the long-term implications of the White House’s abandonment of the long-established Incident Command System (ICS) and Joint Information Center (JIC).