Crisis comms: Is it safe to come out now? BP settles US claims

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

There is a fair degree of schadenfreude in the study of crisis management. We are so often seeking learnings from what is in essence the pain of our communications colleagues in organisations that have had to deal with truly awful situations. BP is one of those organisations and it has just been announced that it has finally reached a settlement on the bulk of claims against it in the US courts following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The size of the settlement is £12 billion which makes it the biggest ever legal settlement paid by a single company in US history. So what are the lessons for crisis communicators?

Essentially it looks like a failure of leadership right from the start. BP failed to face up to the crisis and its role in what had happened. It may have been true that the oil platform was owned and operated by another company, Transocean, and yet another was involved in its construction, Halliburton, but these companies were working for BP. Also BP’s name had more global recognition than theirs and when that is the case it is fairly obvious which company the media in particular will have in their sights. Despite this BP’s first press release following the incident, in which 11 oil rig workers lost their lives, was entitled “BP confirms that Transocean Ltd issued the following press release today” and what followed was indeed only Transocean’s copy.

Failure to call a crisis is failure to control it. Crisis management academics call the decision to step up early and define the crisis and your organisation’s role in it as ‘stealing thunder.’ One of our key roles as communicators is to help organisations do just that by bringing the outside world in and helping our leadership team see just how stakeholders are viewing what has happened and what the defining narrative is likely to be. The failure of BP to make the right call at the outset essentially set the tone for the following few years which hopefully for them now comes to a conclusion.