Provided by Deepwater Horizon Response's photostream (Flickr)

Preliminary lessons from the gulf oil spill

Provided by Deepwater Horizon Response's photostream (Flickr)

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.

Provided by Deepwater Horizon Response's photostream (Flickr)

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

Provided by Deepwater Horizon Response's photostream (Flickr)

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:

  1. Top Level Engagement in Crisis Planning
  2.  The Scale of Planning is Increased
  3. Public Participation the New Norm
  4. A Premium on Accurate Information
  5. 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).

9 thoughts on “Preliminary lessons from the gulf oil spill”

  1. You are right James. There is always a tension between when to offer judgement and when to wait for more facts (a luxury not available in most crisis response).
    This crisis and its aftermath will continue for years. The one principle I suggest will apply is this – when things go right there is never enough praise to share. When things go wrong there is always more than enough blame to go around.

    1. So true, Tony. Your insights continue to be very welcome here!

      When crises are well managed, there's rarely a moment to wave a flag. Typically, attention to the crisis slowly dissipates and you have to remind yourself that it was a success. The converse is true when things don't go as smoothly.

  2. James, most excellent. I think two points are most salient: the complexity of the situation (complex organizations are inherently prone to risk); and, pundits should disclose vested interests as related to their punditry. In this regard, the PR world tends to err in transparency, something, one could argue, that is against the spirit of PRSA's Code of Ethics.


    1. Thanks, Bob.

      I agree with your disclosure point…but at what point does this become extraneous? Remember when "don't feed the alligators" and "coffee is hot and can burn you" signs used to be the punchline of jokes? Those very same warnings are now required.

      Another angle here. I'm not sure I fully subscribe to 100% transparency in every crisis. Perhaps this is semantics, perhaps not. 100% transparency can play nicely into the hands of critics who often can win a sound bite war (since those same critics are not typically held to the same transparency standard).

      I like strategic transparency — where an organization is truthfullly candid about what went wrong, actions to fix it and how to prevent it in the future. I'm just not confident that any organization or indivdual can be 100% transparent in today's sound bite culture. (This very reply could be taken out of context, for example.)

      More on this in a future blog post…more thought required. But in summary, in a crisis, I lean towards strategic transparency, full credibility and full authenticity.

  3. All excellent points — James' comments about commensurate risk management systems, complexity of incident response and strategic disclosure are especially right on.

    The U.S. nuclear power industry is a good example of complexity and high risk. And, in the aftermath of the BP spill, we're beginning to hear more about how U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) oversight standards and current good practices by the U.S. nuclear energy industry might be applied to oil.

    For example, every U.S. nuclear plant is required to have an emergency preparedness plan that includes an emergency communications plan . The plans are updated and simulations are conducted regularly. Mock drills involving plant personnel – as well as all other local, state and emergency responders – also are routinely evaluated and graded by the NRC and Federal Emergency Management Agency. Without a passing grade, a plant can lose its operating license.

    P.S. about strategic transparency — some organizations that are complex and high-risk just can't be 100% transparent for security reasons in today's post 9/11 world.

    1. Excellent additions, Angela. On transparency, I don't think any organization can be 100% transparent for risk of losing proprietary and competitive information. That's why I prefer strategic transparency and authenticity, particularly on CSR communications and on various issues.

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