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BP in the Gulf: When Crisis PR Shouldn't be the Question

Whenever some big crisis hits the news my dad likes to say "So, my son who is in PR, what would you do in this situation?" Then he argues with me.

He asked it again as we were watching the BP mess unfold in the Gulf of Mexico. But this time my answer was simple: there's nothing to do here. This isn't a crisis communications issue. Yes, it's a crisis, but the communications plan should be the LAST thing on their mind right now. The issue here is fixing the problem and communicating what they're actually doing. Anything less is disingenuous.

The best example of this process gone wrong is the painfully funny Twitter account @BPGlobalPR. Here you have a guy digging at BP on a daily basis, pointing out their inconsistencies and problems in an amusing way. In his Huffington Post essay, the writer of @BPGlobalPR noted the futility in any kind of crisis PR program in this situation:

I've read a bunch of articles and blogs about this whole situation by publicists and marketing folk wondering what BP should do to save their brand from @BPGlobalPR.  First of all, who cares?  Second of all, what kind of business are you in?  I'm trashing a company that is literally trashing the ocean, and these idiots are trying to figure out how to protect that company?  One pickledick actually suggested that BP approach me and try to incorporate me into their actual PR outreach.  That has got to be the dumbest, most head-up-the-ass solution anyone could possibly offer.

He goes on to say how BP's PR solution is to fix the problem. Note to BP Crisis PR folks: don't try to find fancy ways to communicate your messages, don't look for new and innovative ways to to put the best face on the problem, now isn't the time for that. Just provide information on what's being done. Period. Oh, and yell at management to do more. In fact, that SHOULD be the crisis PR plan.

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2 comments to BP in the Gulf: When Crisis PR Shouldn’t be the Question

  • Ellen Rossano

    I have to agree that fixing the leak is really the only thing anyone should be focused on in the Gulf of Mexico. Not much has changed since the Exxon Valdez ran aground. I was on active duty in US Coast Guard Public Affairs then, and BP’s reaction to the current situation is eerily familiar to Exxon’s 20+ years ago.

    I have to give credit to the federal Incident Command’s Joint Information Center for bringing social media tools into the communication effort. Within a couple of days of the explosion and fire, there was an official website, Twitter account, Facebook page and Flikr account. I see a fairly consistent number of updates daily at @Oil_Spill_2010 that include photos and video (good and bad,) the number of assets and resources deployed, and live streaming press conferences. That’s a huge Gov 2.0 step, broadcasting live from a crisis response in progress.

    I’ve been following both the real and the fake BP accounts. I find the fake one pretty funny, although I was soundly scolded by a Coast Guard follower for re-Tweeting something I thought was amusing from the fake account.

    If there is any good news, everyone who teaches PR can now retire the Exxon Valdez case study as the “how not to respond to a crisis” with the newer, fresher BP one. Too bad it’s not a “Lessons Learned” case study.

  • I think the only communications should be something like: Man, we really messed up. We’re out there and doing our best to fix it. We know how you feel because we feel it, too. Come join us in fixing this mess. We need you.

    Because God knows, they do. They are just this side of their board being indicted. Humility may not be in their genes (or their business plan) but I’m not seeing anything else as a possibility.

    Union Carbide (http://www.unioncarbide.com/) exists, even after Bhopal. Perhaps not what it was but it’s not wholly gone. There is a way to salvage at least a scrap of the company. And a scrap is probably all that’s going to be left.