BP: A disaster on all fronts

By Margaret Ritsch, APR (cross-posted from the Balcom Agency blog)

As PR professionals watch the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history unfold, we just shake our heads in wonder. Are there any seasoned public relations people at BP’s executive table?

It is clear that BP’s mistakes not only have damaged untold species, livelihoods, and local economies. Its problems are compounded by the apparent disregard for some of the key principles of crisis communications. Granted, lawyers are now in control because of the likelihood of criminal charges. But early in a crisis is when a company’s behavior and communications matter most. Failure to respond quickly and communicate openly in ways that meet the public’s needs and expectations will always make matters worse.

1. Accessibility and openness. When a company has a big problem that causes public harm, that company should communicate both internally and externally just as aggressively as it works to fix the problem.

This is one of many principles taught by James Lukaszewski, APR, a leading national figure in crisis communications and public relations. (I’ve learned a lot from Jim Lukaszewski. His company’s website is worth a visit: www.e911.com.)

A public crisis of this dimension demands that a company’s top executive step up, communicate, and answer the hard questions. CEO Tony Hayward should be much more visible and accessible to press and to the many publics affected by this disaster. Sorry Tony, you can’t have your life back, not for a while.

I believe BP would benefit from allowing TV cameras on its rigs to talk with the workers who are laboring around the clock to repair the leak, drill relief wells and perform other demanding tasks. Workers cleaning up beaches also say they can’t speak with press. Now controlling the message is important to a company in a crisis, but within reason. There ought to be a way for the company to demonstrate and describe its cleanup and repair efforts at the ground level.

It would go a long way to rebuild confidence that BP is working tirelessly to try to ameliorate the damage caused by the oil rig blowout and continuing oil flow. It would humanize the company.

2. Responsiveness. Companies have a responsibility to talk about problems affecting the public and to provide important, relevant information as quickly and completely as they can — especially when health and safety are at risk.

Only this week has BP provided the HD video footage that shows the oil gushing out of the well hole. Scientists and others have been asking for this video for weeks in order to accurately gauge the amount of leakage.

3.Ethics. If a company is at fault, it should admit its mistake, apologize, and explain as quickly as possible. With an absolute commitment to telling the truth. Granted, this was a complex operation involving multiple companies besides BP. Still, BP owes its employees, shareholders, and all affected parties a huge apology, an acknowledgment of its role in this disaster, and an assurance — grounded in reality — that this kind of problem will never happen again.

4.Engagement. It is important in a crisis to answer the public’s questions and volunteer information that may be of interest — to use a two-way communications model so that the company is not just talking, but it is also listening and responding.

Instead, BP is engaged in an elaborate, costly, one-way advertising campaign. It is talking at its publics through full-page color ads in the New York Times and likely other news vehicles and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing Google and Yahoo search terms. More direct engagement with the publics affected by the disaster would cost a lot less and be more effective in rebuilding trust in the company.

5. Commitment. Companies need to learn from their mistakes, talk publicly about what they learned, and commit publicly to fixing whatever needs to be fixed internally to prevent big mistakes from happening again.

BP pleaded guilty in the 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery to violating the Clean Air Act. It pled guilty again to another federal violation for its role in causing oil spills in Alaska in 2006. One has to wonder if BP has learned from its mistakes and examined the business practices that have now led to an enormous environmental disaster. In my humble opinion, from this small agency in Fort Worth, this should be BP’s first priority.

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