'It's a digital world' - communication lessons from the BP oil spill disaster

January 17, 2011 | 00:00

‘It’s a digital world’ - communications lessons from the BP oil spill disaster

The BP Oil Spill will in many ways be a “game-changer” for the energy industry. For one thing, there will be significant repercussions for deepwater oil and gas exploration, both in the US and Europe, as we discuss here. But the disaster will also leave a lasting impact on the way in which energy companies conduct their communications with the outside world. Neil Chapman, former Head of Refining and Marketing Communications at BP, shares with EER his thoughts on the public relations lessons from the event and has some recommendations for his fellow corporate communicators. ‘If you focus solely on the mainstream media in a time of crisis, you make a big mistake as an organisation.’

Everyone remembers the avalanche of criticism that crashed down on BP last year in the United States. In particular BP’s chief executive Tony Hayward was widely criticised for his perceived lack of empathy with the victims of the disaster. However, the company did not stand idly by under this onslaught. It embarked on a truly massive communications campaign to inform the public and counteract misconceptions in the media.

So what are the lessons that may be learned from this harrowing public relations experience? Few people are in a better position to answer this question than Neil Chapman, who was head of BP’s Refining and Marketing Communications at the time of the disaster. Throughout the event, Chapman was right in the middle of things, working in Louisiana at “Unified Command”. This was the organisation in which US government agencies and the companies involved (BP and Transocean) cooperated to coordinate the response to the disaster. According to Chapman, who left BP last year after 17 years to start his own crisis communication consultancy, perhaps the single most important lesson to be drawn from the Deepwater Horizon event is ‘the tremendous importance of digital communications’ in today’s world. He talked to EER on Skype from his office in England.

What did your communications campaign look like?
Well, I can say that it was a truly massive effort. We put out an enormous wealth of information. Just for starters we produced eight different websites, with a large amount of video footage, live webcasts, technical briefings, thousands of still images. We also put out countless messages through Twitter, Facebook, and so on. We produced our own investigation report and a document with technical lessons learned, with accompanying DVD. And so on. And whatever the world thinks, we were prepared.

What is the main lesson you took away from this experience?
The main lesson I would say is that nowadays, it’s a digital world. I was also involved in the communications around the explosion of the BP refinery in Texas City in 2005. That is just five years ago, but the change in the media landscape has been breath-taking. There has been a tremendous growth in digital communications. Most of the communication this time was going on online. There was so much interaction, so many people wanting answers, making suggestions, wanting to share their knowledge, for instance of local circumstances or of technological issues. We got some 120,000 suggestions through the email from people. If you focus solely on the mainstream media in a time of crisis, you make a big mistake as an organisation.

Workers clean the beach on Elmer's Island, LA on 18 December 2010
So how did you handle this digital avalanche?
You have to build up capacity to do that, and you have to do it quickly, which we did. You have to be able to use modern social media – and let me say that a crisis is not the best time to be familiarising yourself with that. As just one example of what we did, we set up an SMS text messaging service for people on the beaches. They could receive alerts and they could ask questions by text message, for instance if they came across a tarball, what they should do with it, and they would get information from us. We also set up a system to evaluate and prioritise all the suggestions we got. For each of the States involved, we set up a separate website. We used a tremendous amount of bandwidth.

Can you give some examples of good and bad experiences?
A bad one was that someone set up a twitter feed called BP Global PR which was a parody. It pretended to be BP, but it wasn’t. These are things you have to live with. There is not much you can do about them. We didn’t try to challenge it. We wanted to keep our focus on where it had to be. On the positive side, our Senior Vice-President, Kent Wells, gave a number of expert briefings on our website which were quite appreciated. He made video and audio broadcasts with technical updates, a tour of the crisis management centre, and so on. They were very effective.

What did you think of the response from your competitors? It seems that some of the executives of other companies tried to put some distance between BP and themselves.
That may have been true at a very high level, it was certainly not the case for us on the ground. On the contrary, we got a very positive response from other companies. I had someone from corporate communications from anothre company shadow me, to learn and to help. In many ways it became an industry event.

Are there lessons to be learned for the leadership as well?
I witnessed some fabulous examples of leadership in the US Coast Guard. It was very inspiring to see how some senior members interacted with their regular staff. They spent time with them, gave them attention, in a way that was really touching. I will never forget that. Corporations like BP can learn from this. I didn’t see bad examples at BP, but I also didn’t see what I saw in the Coast Guard. Maybe it’s because they are used to dealing with crises.

Some critics say that oil companies should become more transparent. Do you agree?
Greater transparency is going to be an issue for everyone in the industry. I think you have to look at the trends and say, is the world headed towards more or less transparency? I think the answer is clear. Oil companies are technically oriented, communication is one of those “soft” issues that they find difficult to deal with. But those who have been through events like the one we went through know that communication is vitally important.

Neil Chapman’s 12 recommendations for crisis communications

‘Along with scores of communications professionals, I was caught up in the BP oil spill for too much of 2010.

Both a human and environmental disaster, the event was complex and extremely expensive in its emotional and economic toll. Any organisation facing an emergency or crisis would be wise to learn lessons from the incident, without the costs that befell BP.

Reports and inquiry testimony are readily available to study. Many pundits have shared opinions about where BP went wrong and what it should have done. Here are some observations, that can point to where organisations might start to look for lessons relevant to them:

1. Readiness - an every day investment
In a crisis, time is precious, priorities key. Whatever the world thinks, BP was readier than many organisations. Meetings need a purpose, priorities established, decisions taken efficiently, communications clear and concise. All good skills and habits worth cultivating for every day business. But it takes training and practice.

2. Know the system
If outside agencies, especially emergency services, respond to a corporation’s incident, it will likely be managed using an established response system with tried and tested procedures and protocols. Corporate responders – including senior management – need to be familiar with the system.

3. It’s an on-line world
On-line is where most of the conversations and coverage about a crisis now occur. Corporate communicators who believe they should focus solely on traditional, mainstream media during a crisis – however demanding they are - will miss most of what is being said about them by default.

4. Be social media smart
A crisis is not the time to learn the challenges and opportunities of social media such as You Tube, Twitter, Facebook etc. These channels can hurt and help at the same time. Corporate communicators need to be social media savvy, knowing when and how they can use these channels in a crisis. And tomorrow there will be a new one to learn about …

5. It’s a mobile world
As well as being on-line, the world carries the internet on its hip or in a purse. To reach key audiences on the go, corporate communicators cannot be hidebound by the technology they are permitted or know how to use.

6. Work on information discipline
To provide timely, accurate on-message information to the outside world as soon as possible across an organisation requires discipline to ensure it is shared effectively inside too. Information discipline gets harder over time, as people shift in and out or they are spread over geography and time zones. Has your organisation got a system other than email?

7. Plan for help
Chances are a corporate communications department will need extra people to cope with the tremendous information demand during a crisis. To bring them on-board takes time and effort, just when you need both for other priorities. Learn how to integrate extra resources quickly as well as how to coordinate with other agencies.

8. Think about communications processes
A corporate communications manual provides clear ‘how to’ instructions that save time and help integrate the ‘new hands’ an organisation needs. Have you got one?

9. Leaders – be hard, be soft
A crisis tests any leader’s people skills. Responders need honest feedback, positive and negative. If something or someone isn’t working, the problem has to be fixed quickly to keep the response on track. But at the same time, people need to be ‘nurtured’ when the going gets tough for them.

10. Beware of the toll
Crises wear people down. The strain can show up at work or at home. Relationships may break. Any corporation that sees its people as an important asset needs to provide effective employee support in a crisis. The first step is to make sure they are trained.

11. Think strategic
It’s hard to see the writing on the wall with your back to it! It’s too easy to get trapped into focusing on an immediate challenge – and not to look far enough ahead. A team, or someone, needs to be thinking long term from the outset.

12. Don’t make it worse
Until the world thinks the crisis is fixed, there’s a lot an organisation can say to make things worse for itself. Stay on message and talk ‘actions, actions, actions’.

BP’s crisis was the first energy industry disaster of the social media age. The result was that information – good and bad - travelled at an exceptionally fast rate, was dominated by digital and saw demand for it go through the roof. But some of the most effective communication took place face to face.

The communications landscape is now much, much broader than it was. Organisations – particularly corporate communicators – should take note and learn because 2011 will bring its own crop of crises.’

Neil Chapman worked as a communicator for BP until last year. He has over 25 years of experience dealing with crises and difficult public affairs issues around the globe. He founded Alpha Voice Communications consultancy to focus on crisis communications readiness, presentation training and issues management. Alpha Voice Communications is associated with AudienceOne in Europe. Go to: www.alphavoicecommunications.com to find out more.

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