Lessons From the BP Oil Spill

Eight ways to reconnect after a disaster.

August 5, 2010

Since April, we’ve been glued to news of the Gulf Coast oil spill. While some of the recent headlines are more hopeful, anxiety and frustration continue. Much of our ire is aimed squarely at British Petroleum (BP), the company that owns the well. The oil company is buried deep in a disaster that will be difficult to overcome. And what makes the situation worse, says Maribeth Kuzmeski, is how BP has chosen to connect with the media and the public during the crisis—resorting to misleading information, poor communication, and neglect while dodging responsibility for the spill.

“The way BP has handled the oil spill should serve as the standard to avoid for any company facing such a disaster in the future,” says Kuzmeski, author of “The Connectors: How the World’s Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life.”

“Obviously, it would have been best for the company to have prevented the spill, but once the damage was done, the company could have mitigated some of the backlash it received,” she says. In a disaster, you expect public opinion to be at its worst immediately after the event, she points out. With the BP spill, backlash continued to build because the company didn’t communicate effectively.

It’s not only BP’s image that has suffered, she adds. Poor communication also has negatively affected the public’s view of the government. “People are looking to the president for solutions,” says Kuzmeski. When the well is permanently capped and the cleanup progresses, both BP and the president “could be left with irreparable damage in terms of public opinion,” she says.

Obviously, few companies are likely to be involved in disasters of the magnitude of the BP oil spill—few have the capacity to wreak such immense physical and environmental destruction. But bad things can happen to any company—a financial scandal, a contaminated or faulty product, a high-profile lawsuit. What’s essential is how your organization reacts and connects with consumers.

Here are eight suggestions from Kuzmeski on how to mend relationships and immediately start reconnecting with consumers and the public after a disaster:

1. Practice full transparency and full disclosure.

Until a company makes the decision to lay all the cards on the table after a disaster—to be upfront about its decision-making process and solutions—the organization is stuck behind a roadblock, says Kuzmeski. It’s impossible to begin rebuilding relationships if you aren’t being honest and upfront about what has happened. As BP found out, a lack of transparency attracts closer scrutiny and suspicion.

“At different stages of the event, it has been revealed that BP wasn’t being completely truthful about the spill,” says Kuzmeski. “At one point, it wasn’t allowing the media to get close to the site. And it turns out the company had a higher-quality video feed much earlier than previously revealed. By not being fully transparent and disclosing what they knew, BP officials affected their believability. As it stands today, a lot of people are wondering if they can trust any communication the company puts out there.

“By not being fully transparent, the U.S. government has also missed an opportunity to get the public fully on board with it,” she adds. “People want to hear that the government is doing its part. They want to hear what the government is working on, and what the government plans to do to help the citizens of the Gulf Coast.”

2. Get out in front of the disaster.

There’s no better example of this than Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol scare. After several people died from taking cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol in 1982, Johnson & Johnson immediately accepted responsibility. The company immediately recalled all Tylenol products (even though it likely was an isolated incident) and developed a tamper-proof seal. It began showing the public it was doing everything in its power to protect the public and fix the problem.

“When you get in front of a problem, it doesn’t make the problem go away, but at least it shows people you’re doing something about it and that you care,” says Kuzmeski. “Caring is a key point of connection. Your public has to see that you care enough about them to forget your own company’s well-being for the moment and instead do what you can to restore their safety and their well-being. So much of it is perception.

“Because BP was slow to accept responsibility and show it cares about what the spill is doing to the Gulf Coast, I don’t think people perceive that the company cares much about them,” she adds. “And that’s something that can be very difficult to overcome when you’re trying to rebuild relationships with a public that feels it has been wronged.”

3. Step up and take responsibility.

An important part of reconnecting after a disaster is accepting responsibility. Johnson & Johnson’s quick acceptance of responsibility is one reason the company was able to recover so handily after the Tylenol scare, says Kuzmeski. Unfortunately, in the case of the BP spill, the company has only reluctantly taken responsibility for what happened.

“Especially during the early days of the spill, there was a lot of finger-pointing between the companies involved in the spill,” she says. “No one wanted to say it was their fault. BP should have recognized that no matter whose fault it was it was going to come down to BP to fix it. BP should have taken responsibility from the get-go and said, ‘There was an accident. It’s horrible. We apologize for our role in this disaster, and we’re committed to doing everything we can to fix it as quickly as possible.’

“The government too has seemed to try to deflect responsibility for its role,” she adds. “It was almost two months before the president openly acknowledged that the mismanagement of the Minerals Management Service played at least some role in the events leading up to the rig explosion and the spill. Until someone takes responsibility for the disaster, the public doesn’t feel there’s anyone fully in charge of fixing the problem.”

4. Remember that quantity and quality of communication count.

In a crisis, quality of communication is important, but so is quantity. Any company facing a disaster must stay in front of the public and keep them constantly informed. In the case of the oil spill, the U.S. government too needs to be steadfast in its efforts to stay in front of the people—after all, the spill stands to damage the livelihoods of U.S. citizens in addition to the long-lasting effects it will have on the environment.

“When there’s a lack of sufficient communication, the result is anger,” says Kuzmeski. “And when you’re dealing with a disaster, anger is no good. The anger causes a major roadblock and makes it difficult to connect. Even if you eventually get it right, it takes a long time for that anger to subside.” 

5. Don’t shy away from tough questions.

There’s nothing easy about reconnecting after a disaster. Regardless of the situation, there will always be tons of difficult questions people want answered. Make sure you’re prepared to answer them, says Kuzmeski.

“BP executives have almost seemed annoyed that people are questioning them,” she says. “The company’s spokespeople often come off as dismissive. When dealing with a disaster, if you have to answer a question a thousand times, just answer it. When you’re dismissive or act like you don’t want to answer a certain question, you diminish the public’s trust in you.

“BP has tried to avoid answering certain questions, and it has turned out that things were worse than BP was putting forward,” she adds. “It’s another example of how the company actually made things worse for themselves by not being upfront about all the issues.”

6. Be authentic—but please think before you speak.

When a disaster strikes, too often companies go to a script, says Kuzmeski. That’s understandable, because you naturally want your communication to be well-thought-out. But it’s important to understand your communication also has to be authentic. Remember, people connect with other people—not with scripts, she says. So be sure to take a break from the “official” party line from time to time and let your human side show.

There’s one important caveat, however, she notes: Don’t be “authentic” in the ill-advised way BP’s executives have been.

“For the most part, after the spill the company has stuck to scripted apologies and statements,” she says. One of the few times dismissed CEO Tony Hayward went off script, though, he angered people by saying he wanted his life back. "Sure, he was being authentic, but the statement definitely took away from the scripted apologies the company had previously offered. If your level of authenticity doesn’t match your scripted statements, it might be best to stick to the script. If you do choose to speak your mind, choose your words very carefully."

Another example of not thinking before you speak: “In the company’s recent talk with President Obama, it was revealed that Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg mentioned BP’s concern for ‘the small people’ being affected by the oil spill. Naturally, it was a statement that rubbed many the wrong way,” says Kuzmeski. “The take-away lesson is that people need to feel you truly mean what you’re saying, but what you’re saying needs to help your cause, not hurt it.”

7. Couple your communication with action.

You can provide people with the best communication possible, but if you don’t also back up that communication with action, you won’t get anywhere.

“This point might be a bigger struggle for the government than BP,” says Kuzmeski. “Obama’s talking about how angry he is isn’t enough.” Anger must be coupled with action, she says. The announcement that the president negotiated a $20 billion payout from BP helped. You can’t be all show and no go, she adds. You have to have clear communication followed by activity.

“Johnson & Johnson serves as another good example here,” adds Kuzmeski. “After the Tylenol scare, it communicated to the public that it was taking responsibility for what happened. Then it recalled Tylenol products even though it was a huge cost to the company.”

8. Make the public part of the process.

To connect with people, involve them in the process, she says. When your company is dealing with a disaster, assess who you should collaborate with, who can help you, and how they can help. This shows people you’re working toward solutions, and they become a little army on your side.

“When I consult with companies, I make sure all the decision makers and managers are involved in what’s going on,” says Kuzmeski. “I want everyone in the room together collaborating, because when someone is left out and new initiatives are implemented, they feel like they’re being given directives. But if they feel like they’ve been made a part of the process, they make sure they’re part of the solution.

“The bottom line is BP took a terrible situation, and, via poor communication and mismanagement, made it even worse,” says Kuzmeski. “It’s now much more than an oil spill. It’s about the way people have been treated. It’s about the fact that many people feel they’ve been victimized even further by the way the disaster was handled.”

 To salvage public opinion after a disaster for which your organization is partially or entirely responsible, she says, aim to connect with the public through honest and open communication right away.

“The Connectors: How the World’s Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. (Wiley, ISBN: 978-0-470-48818-8)