There’s been plenty of coverage and commentery over the BP oil spill crisis and subsequent public relations fiasco. One of the things I’ve found most interesting – though not surprising – is the discovery that the BP crisis management plan was riddled with errors and outdated information.
Many of the reports on this flawed plan, like this blog post, focused on the factual errors and obvious lack of due diligence in keeping the plan accurate and relevant. That is, sadly, true of many crisis plans I’ve seen over the years. They are created – sometimes at great expense – but quickly left to gather the proverbial dust and remain detached from daily planning or operations. What surprised me about the BP plan is that it failed both on the business continuity side and the more arcane reputation front. Many companies have decent plans in place to guide operational decisions and contingency steps to sustain operations and manage emergencies. But far fewer – in my experience – have thought through the more nuanced decision-making process related to reputation and media issues. (The celebrated Tylenol case, of course, demonstrated the perfect mix of core values and operational directives.) Even if BP had a better reaction to the spill itself, I suspect it still would have badly bungled the media and marketing response. In fact, in some measure CEO Tony Hayward did things by the book – be front-and-center, be candid and informal, take responsibility…and so on. Unfortunately, he was so badly off script he mostly alienated and confused viewers. And BP made so many off-key decisions in their communication response (notably stubbornly under-estimating the flow of oil) they eroded their latent credibility early in the process.
There are many lessons here for companies eager to avoid a PR disaster in the wake of a business disaster – a double-dip, if you will. One is to develop a robust, dynamic crisis plan that is fully integrated into the operations of the organization. Two is to ensure the plan addresses communication issues like values, decision-making criteria, messaging and positioning.