In the midst of the BP Oil Spill of 2010, it’s hard not to draw similarities to the Exxon Valdez incident 21 years ago. It seems that BP could have learned a thing or two by looking at how Exxon handled the oil spill in 1989 and saved themselves a lot of bad publicity and money along the way.
Back in the late 80’s, Exxon made some PR blunders that almost ran their company aground right along with the Exxon Valdez tanker. In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez departed from the Trans Alaska pipeline terminal and encountered icebergs. The captain, who was later found to be intoxicated, ran the ship aground on Bligh Reef. This resulted in dumping 257,000 barrels of oil into the surrounding ocean.
Shortly after the accident, the communication missteps quickly followed. Mistake number one for Exxon was not identifying a spokesperson and communicating openly with the media and the public. In not being transparent, Exxon only succeeded in angering the public more when news began to leak out.
Exxon was heavily criticized for doing too little, too late. They were not quick to try and contain the spill and the environment suffered greatly for it. The company appeared indifferent to the environmental destruction and failed to show leadership in ensuring that an incident like it wouldn’t happen again.
Targeted by boycotts internationally, Exxon took a hit financially and lost their market share, slipping from the largest oil company in the world to number three. They were also slapped with a $5 billion corporate responsibility fine and have never made good on their monetary commitments to Alaska residents and companies.
Learning From Past PR Examples
In this latest oil spill disaster, it appears that BP is doing some things right, but the company won’t be winning any crisis communication awards anytime soon. BP did learn from Exxon and got out in front of the media from the start, taking the stance that you can never over-communicate in a crisis. BP provided up-to-date information through Twitter and went as far as creating an entire section on their website dedicated to the oil rig situation including a live action video of the 24/7 work underwater. BP has also been running ads in major news publications since May, taking responsibility for the situation and ensuring it would be taken care of. In order to reach people searching for information online, BP is buying advertising on Google to improve its likelihood of being seen in search results. They’ve also created a branded channel on YouTube displaying videos concerning its cleanup efforts.
BP’s public relations troubles began when the public figured out that they were trying to downplay the rate at which the Deepwater Horizon well was leaking. The offering of settlements to coastal residents of no more than $5,000 to not sue the company didn’t play well with the public either. Reports of BP restricting journalists’ access to certain areas has lead to some news outlets taking out their own boats in order to show the public what’s really happening.
One thing they should have learned from Exxon is that rather than trying to spin the story, BP should focus its energies on reducing the flow of oil and minimizing environmental destruction. By withholding images of the spill taken by a submarine, BP delayed the process of assessing the spill, which could have contained the crisis earlier. Instead of allowing the CEO to bemoan that he would “like my life back,” compassion needs to be shown to the families of the people who lost theirs.
BP has also been criticized by President Obama for plans to spend $50 million on a public relations campaign, when that money could be going to relief efforts. Most PR professionals would defend the company’s decision. Communicating positive news about the company and being able to control the message is critical to BP’s long-term survival. The paradox being that spending money on advertising is necessary to ensure that revenues will keep coming in from customers so there are funds for the cleanup efforts. BP had a good reputation and public image before the spill - they should try to capitalize on that now.
As it stands, BP has already lost half of its market value, $95 billion, since the explosion. They need to fix the problem and limit the environmental damage as much as possible to salvage their reputation. PR can only work when the company’s actions back up the message.