BP focuses on response rather than reputation in current crisis communications

Despite a slow start to its crisis communications effort, BP is using a variety of media tools to guide the company through its response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite a slow start to its crisis communications effort, BP is using a variety of media tools to guide the company through its response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20. BP owns the well, while Halliburton and Transocean were hired as contractors. Now, government officials are estimating the cost of the cleanup to be in the billions of dollars, while implications of the crisis could have a long-term effect on the oil industry in the US.

BP is working with government agencies to coordinate the response through the Deepwater Horizon Response team. The team is operating a microsite, Facebook page, and Twitter feed, all designed specifically for the crisis, said Toby Odone, press officer for BP.

Hourly posts include links to images, videos, and news updates.

Odone says the crisis center, based in Houston, is staffed by communications professionals flown in from BP's offices around the world. A source at Brunswick Group confirmed the agency was hired for the crisis and the work is being led out of Washington.

Jean Gould, director of corporate and government affairs for Coyne PR, says that until the oil leak is stopped, the company must focus on the response to the disaster, and not to overlying speculation about the company's reputation.

“This is a situation that they say is unprecedented, but it's definitely a challenging engineering feat to get the oil stopped,” she says. “The long-term ramifications of the impact of this crisis on their image will have to play in the next couple of years.”

Justine Griffin, who leads the crisis and litigation communications practice at Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, adds, “They're trying to communicate openly, communicate with the government, and they're trying to take full responsibility.”

But, until the crisis enters the recovery phase, or at least until the oil has been stopped, BP is limited to steps it can take to counter public perception about the company and the oil industry.

Yet other companies are using the situation as a communications platform to discuss persistent industry issues.

Dave Samson, GM of public affairs for Chevron, says his company is reaching out to employees, investors, and the media to reinforce the need for safety and operational quality.

“This most recent incident is just a stark reminder of the importance of maintaining that diligence and having a strong safety and operational excellence culture,” says Samson. “We're operating in the deep water Gulf of Mexico, just like BP is, so people have legitimate questions of the company and so we're responding as we can.”

As the crisis enters the recovery phase, attention will focus on the political and financial ramifications for the company and the oil industry. Given the current political climate in Washington and the recent congressional focus on Toyota and Goldman Sachs, BP will face its reputational battle in the Beltway. 

“The tension in Washington will be very much on public display,” says Griffin.

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