Crisis Response Lessons on the 10th Anniversary of BP’s Gulf Oil Spill

What Can We Learn from the Company’s Response to One of the Nation’s Worst Environmental and Economic Disasters?               

4/21/2020 – – Ten years ago this week, news media coverage was dominated by a developing story in the Gulf of Mexico. An explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana had killed 11 crew members and severely damaged the rig’s safety apparatus. Despite the best efforts of BP, international offshore drilling experts and the federal government, the resulting spill lasted 87 days, ultimately pouring 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf.

Struggling right now with the continuing death and disorientation of the coronavirus, it’s hard to focus on any other crisis. But on this 10th anniversary of one of the planet’s worst environmental and economic disasters, there are relevant lessons to be remembered.

When crisis communicators look back at the 2010 “BP Oil Spill,” much of their criticism centers on the actions and statements by BP’s CEO at the time, Tony Hayward. The embattled executive earned a prominent place in the Crisis Response Hall of Shame when he attempted to downplay the damage being done by the spill with this explanation:

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”        

Now, before you dismiss Mr. Hayward’s comment as mindless spin, understand that leaders dealing with the unrelenting pressures of a crisis are tempted to accentuate the positive. There is a powerful inclination in human nature to want to stop the bleeding, change the narrative. (You may remember the dramatic video of oil pouring from the damaged well streaming live on CNN 24/7 from the ocean floor.)

Of course, what he should have said is something more like this: “Any amount of oil is unacceptable to us. Stopping this spill is a very complicated engineering challenge and we’re working around the clock. But capping the well may take weeks.” Then if the problem had been solved in a shorter timeframe, the company would have looked good, or at least honest.

As you observe state, federal and corporate leaders addressing the coronavirus crisis, you can see the delicate balance between optimism and realism at play. How do you characterize a decline from 300 deaths to 250 deaths in a single day as a “good sign” without appearing to be heartless? How can you welcome the news that the fatality rate of coronavirus infection is less than one person per thousand as a sign that we can open restaurants and fill baseball stadiums without drawing criticism that you place profits over people?

The other under-fire utterance by Tony Hayward worthy of note was this response to a media question about the duration of the crisis:

“There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”   

The media and the public interpreted Hayward’s comment as a shocking pronouncement of BP’s misplaced priorities. Forget the lost lives on the drilling rig, the ecological damage to the Gulf of Mexico and the harm done to businesses and communities along the Gulf Coast. Company management was upset about the inconvenience and disruption to their personal lives. That’s the impression Hayward’s complaint communicated.

Everyone making public comments about social distancing, shutting down the economy or sheltering in place should keep this cautionary tale top of mind. Celebrities and elected officials posting selfies of their confinement by swimming pools or in front of $20,000 Sub-Zero refrigeration units should remember the shared sacrifice of the American people. In today’s environment, inconvenience and cabin fever pale in comparison to the duties of an emergency care nurse or a grocery store clerk.

Readers of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient and this blog know how important and helpful I think it is to go to school on other people’s crises. Learning from the mistakes and triumphs of others makes great sense. The 2010 BP Oil Spill crisis is in many ways still unfolding — certainly for BP as well as businesses and communities along the Gulf Coast. No doubt the impact of the coronavirus crisis will still be with us 10 years from now. Avoid the mistakes made by Tony Hayward and you won’t be the subject of some PR guy’s blog in 2030.      

Getting your life back is not what this is all about.

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