When a crisis comes knocking-no matter how prepared companies may think they are-generally speaking, the first 48 hours will set the stage for how a company will respond and deal with the crisis. Clearly, in the case of BP and its recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, nobody was prepared for the magnitude and impact of such a horrific accident. Not only were there human casualties, the environmental and economic casualties continue to mount-likely for a long time. A few things make this crisis unique: first, it is not a single event that is over quickly like a hurricane, earthquake or on-land explosion which passes in a relatively short timeframe.
Secondly, the “fix” is miles beneath the ocean so access has proven to be challenging. It is also unique in that it will impact the Gulf of Mexico’s natural habitat with unprecedented damage to the environment-maybe permanently for some areas but it’s still too soon to tell. Finally, this crisis could have long term, devastating economic implications for the entire coastal region from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama to Florida. These states are the “coastal playground” for the entire Southeast and are dependent upon tourism, fishing and recreation.
In short, so much devastation paints a nasty picture for BP and its Top Brass. It’s what I call “bet the company” crisis communication and it requires immediate, transparent and straight forward strategies from day one. BP has done the exact opposite, waiting until last week to unfold their high profile (and expensive) ad and messaging campaign which I believe will be wasted on a large population of angry people whose emotions will run high as the consequences of the spill continue to lap onto the beaches, the marshes and wetlands and creatures of the sea.
So here’s what BP didn’t exactly “get” from day 1 and here’s what companies and organizations can learn:
- The first 48 hours of the crisis is the time for the top management to respond in a straight forward way armed with facts as they know them and the appearance of being transparent and honest with the public, the media, employees and stakeholders. There’s been a lot said about the lawyers involved and while I know legal counsel is there to protect companies from themselves, when you have a crisis of this scale, you have to weigh the risk of not following legal advice-which unfortunately in many cases is to say nothing-against the risk of having your case played out publicly in the court of the viral internet! Instead, BP issued gag orders and stayed quiet too long. Huge mistake.
- BP grossly understated the magnitude of the spill. Another terrible mistake to make. Even if you aren’t sure how many gallons are spilling into the Gulf each day, you’d better have your facts straight. Accuracy and facts are extremely important in crisis PR; No matter how “bad” it is, you have to tell your story-good, bad and ugly.
- BP waited too long to tell their story. It took them almost 45 days to roll out their message? Their expensive PR consultants, lobbyists and legal team will not be strong enough to spin anything positive out of this story. I can’t believe I’m saying it but at this point, they are wasting their money on consultants. A better strategy would be to give that money to the fishermen who now face unemployment or worse, bankruptcy.
- BP underestimated the importance of digital PR, the internet power and Twitter. BP’s twitter account has only 8,000 followers (or about at last count). A “fake” Twitter account called @BPGlobalPR was established and has over 120,000 followers. PR is now 24/7 and it’s viral, global and permanent. Unfortunately, most legal teams advising their corporate clients don’t understand social media tools like Twitter, You-Tube and Facebook. These tools play a tremendous role. Today, anyone with a mobil device is a reporter. You cannot hide, cover anything up or try and keep anything like this under wraps.
- If BP had a crisis plan in place, we sure didn’t see it. Don’t wait until you have a crisis to get a plan in place. Although you cannot predict what might happen, you can get ready by asking yourself these things: do we value transparency and straight talk? What would our lawyers tell us to do in certain situations and are they right? What kind of crisis could we envision happening to us? Is HR communicating with PR and would our teams be ready immediately? Do we have the communication tools in place to handle a crisis? Have we had media training? Who would our point person(s) be to talk with the media? I think having a plan in place before something happens is much better than nothing at all. Even though no plan can be followed as predicted, going through the exercise of a plan will take a company closer to handling it better.
This crisis is far from over and these are just a few lessons we can learn. Time will tell if this is a “bet the company” crisis but unfortunately BP isn’t the biggest loser in this deal. Far too many others will lose more-some have already made the ultimate sacrifice: their lives.