Friday, 11 June 2010

BP - corp comms teams can learn from this

I’ve been watching the story of BP the past couple of weeks, and how the mess they created (and I’m not just taking oil here) has got worse and worse. So, if like me until a little while ago, you’re sitting in the corp comms team of a large corporate, one that is only one c*ck up away from a BP-style crapstorm, what can we all learn from this whole situation?

Be humble
BP’s response at the very beginning of this was poor. The early attempts to deflect responsibility to their US operational partners was badly thought out and inappropriate.
Never forget that the start of this was a horrendous accident which caused the rig to catch fire and sink, killing 11 people. BP’s public official response to this was a pretty hands-off press release on 21 April, where they “offered ... full support to drilling contractor Transocean” as they evacuated the rig. A day later, they followed this up with another release, to say they were activating “an extensive oil spill response”. Nothing then, until 24 April, when their next release “offers sympathy to the families of those lost”.

In each of these releases they make significant mention of Transocean – in many ways this is understandable (and accurate, don’t forget) but was it sensible? It was clear very early on that this was going to be a significant incident and a deeply sensitive issue. A UK company being so quick to blame a US company for this, right on their doorstep, and so early on, was not sensible.

Compound this with the comments made by Tony Hayward on the now notorious CNN interview (but more of this later) it was enough to sow the seeds of discontent in the US.

Anyone would think this was BP’s first major disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Own the story
BP’s initial hands off approach allowed the story agenda to be set by others – in particular the US media, the US government and it’s response agencies. BP has since been responding, rather than initiating, comment on the spill. This has not panned out well!

With no quick fix, the White House has been increasingly keen to find someone to blame; to deflect criticism from southern, deeply Republican, deeply hostile states, that they are powerless (who says Hurricane Katrina did no good for anyone – it taught the White House media staff a hard lesson!). Step forward BP – conveniently listed abroad, and with much more to lose (both reputation and money) than any of the other parties who may be responsible.

Even Transocean has been happy to hide behind BP’s large, corporate, well funded skirts. A quick look at the Transocean corporate website shows some real estate on their home page given over to it, but that's about it. More interestingly, a look at their press releases shows relatively little official comment since the accident itself. And who can blame them.

The official response site was setup and is maintained by the Unified Command center (mostly US agencies with input from BP and Transocean), and is powered by Pier Systems, a US based emergency response specialist. They also manage BP’s four state-specific response sites, but more of these later. If I was being disingenuous I might even hint that BP was outsourcing their digital response, but that would be mean...

Unfortunately, the media cat is now out of the bag, and BP are in the unenviable position of being permanently on the back foot. When Congressmen are even saying that “everyone with a British accent from BP is lying to the American people” you know you have more than a passing reputational issue (will the last person in BP’s press centre please turn out the light as they leave!). Mind you, he may have a point. Today, the US Geological Survey have announced that the initial spill figures may have been significantly lower than the reality.

The Attorney General has even said that the US government will not pay a dime towards clean up and that BP will be held responsible. Now, I wasn’t aware that the cause of the initial incident had been established yet, and that culpability had been decided (step forward Transocean, Halliburton, US legislators and indeed BP). If not then BP may have a legitimate claim for prejudice and have any potential lawsuit against them contested accordingly.
Talking of which, amazingly Halliburton seems to have slipped almost unnoticed under the radar. After testifying at the Senate hearings, they seem to have ducked out quite successfully. In fact, there’s not even a mention of the oil spill on their website home page, other than a cursory financial statement about an IR call. Mind you , the Halliburton website contained very useful information about their Texas headquarters. Read whatever you want into that...

Never mind, BP did buy sponsored links to their response site from the major search engines. so that’s OK then. Media response owned. Not.

Manage your senior management better
Never let your CEO in front of the press when he’s stressed. Never. Really, never, ever do it. Have a look at that CNN interview again I’m not sure about you, but I get the distinct impression that he’s continually trying to suppress a smirk. I’m sure that’s not for any other reason than he’s stressed, tired, and generally incredibly stretched, and is no more than a human defence mechanism. But still... a bullish approach to slicing up the blame cake by a smug overseas CEO was never going to play well in Peoria. Or Alabama.

And if you insist on taking him off his leash and letting him run around in front of the press unsupervised, please warn him against either saying something tactless (like about getting his life back) or being arrogantly dismissive about the impact your incident might have in the future (compared to the size of the ocean, the spill is tiny).

Hopefully the forthcoming meeting between and Obama and the BP chairman will be better managed by BP’s comms support staff.

Unfortunately, it took far too long for BP to engage openly with their stakeholders. Their initial hands off approach didn’t lend itself to any form of engagement – which has subsequently become a damage limitation exercise. Their four local response sites have been set up by Pier, who registered the relevant domains on 14 May. That’s nearly FOUR WEEKS after the disaster. Seriously people... what’s going on?

Well, at least they had some idea of doing something – on 7 May they registered which is currently used for emails. Mind you, note to Pier staff, please check the “title” tags of your websites a bit more carefully. Oh, and while you're at it, please sort out the .ico images on the HEAD element of your response sites - check out the URL bar on to see a rather lovely hurricane image. Best not tempt fate, eh? (Bet you can't tell that Pier System saw significant business during Katrina...)

I can’t see much in any of these official BP sites that is any real attempt to engage. There’s some fairly bland info about volunteering, reporting, wildlife and so on. But nothing that really reaches out. And the tone of voice really leaves a lot to be desired. Dry, corporate, unfriendly – there’s a time and a place for content like that, but arguably this isn’t it. And if you’re going to launch an official site, please at least try to follow your own visual identity guidelines. The site design is a mess! As is the IA, the UX and all sorts of other things. But I digress.

However, on the ground it looks like BP are starting to wake up to the benefits of direct engagement. The Belle Chase Outreach meeting on 9 June, and the video, is a great start.
And the official BP response site does show evidence of what they’re doing to contain the spill, but again tone of voice is dry and corporate. Even the failures of initiatives like “top kill” are smothered in corporate language. At this point, it doesn’t help, and it’s really adding to the wider perception that BP is not acting openly and honestly. However, when you start reading sections like this on the response site you can see why the whole ToV thing is a nest of vipers for BP. This magazine-stylee, chatty verbose crap is really not appropriate in this situation.

Social media has really gone into a frenzy on this. BP have tried in Facebook and in fairness have kept the page up to date. There’s lots of commentary on their wall, and it looks like they’ve undertaken minimal editing of user posts (points for that!). Their official Twitter account has also been busy at but mostly pushing out info, not much engagement. However, I can understand this, they’re using it as an update service rather than a conversation channel.

Let dissenters have their space
Big snaps to BP on this one. They’ve allowed space for critics and dissenters to have their say (they must have learned from Shell’s issues with

So step forward my favourite have-a-go heroes:
Stop the oil spill by stuffing BP executives into the leaking pipe
Design a new BP logo at Greenpeace

How would BP handle a coffee spill? (this is a great, cynical view of the whole incident!)
and my personal favorite, the fake BP twitter account.

Clearly, this isn't over. BP is starting to get things under control, both in the GoM and in the media. But this has become so much worse for them than it needed to have been, and it's not over yet...