Any time a crisis involves a natural disaster, environmental catastrophe, or drawn-out tragedy, there is only one point of discussion.
When is it going to stop?
Transparency? It doesn't matter. Who is at fault? It doesn't matter. Is the federal government doing enough? It doesn't matter.
Sure, those questions are bound to be asked and asked again. Thirty-seven days is a long time to be in the midst of a crisis with multiple events. And during that time, when specific event coverage can no longer hold viewer interest, investigations start and second tier questions bubble up. But all stories always come back to that singular question. When is it going to stop?
It's the primary reason that for any communication offered up by one of the world's largest energy companies, it always circles back to live shots of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ocean floor. It always ends with oil washing up on the shore. It always comes back to the impact on animals and sea life or the disruption of life for residents who live within the path.
This isn't "Obama's Katrina" as some people like to call it. Katrina was over, from the time it was upgraded to a tropical storm, in five days.
The oil spill is not an event. It's multiple events.
If there is one fatal flaw in the communication strategy by BP, the Obama administration, and dozens of other vested and guilty parties, it is that they have neglected to see the obvious. This crisis is not a singular event. It's a multiple event crisis, with each event requiring a different set of answers for first tier questions.
• Provide updates and estimates related to the time and date of the event.
• Determine the what, when, where, how, and why.
• Determine who will be involved and to what extent.
• Determine the public or environmental risk of each event.
• Determine the extent of any property damage and loss of life.
• Determine which authorities will be on the scene of each event.
• Estimate and create action plans when each specific crisis will be resolved.
• Keep providing updates, with any positive outcomes, until it is resolved.
Isolating each event related to the crisis is critical if anyone hopes to manage it. Otherwise, the culmination of unrelated events will overwhelm any singular or tag team entity much like Toyota's sometimes unrelated recalls that eventually added up into a company that lost its way.
As a visual, the greater mass of the oil crisis might be likened to a giant blob that BP is attempting to hold up on its own while other vested parties stand by hoping for the best. It's not possible. Crisis and communication blobs do not act like solid mass. They act more like oil. It slips. It drips. And eventually it will coat everyone involved. It doesn't matter who gets more soiled.
Instead, the entire crisis needs to be broken up into parts. There is the leak, which was the initial cause of the crisis. There is the oil that has already seeped into the ocean, killing wildlife, damaging fishermen, and halting tourism. There are scores of smaller events that impact specific ecosystems, local communities, and residents.
The first tier priority is to stop the leak. Until then, nothing else matters.
The second tier, which occurs simultaneously, is to contain the spread of the oil and disperse it. BP is managing this effort, but relying on support from the Coast Guard and hired local fishermen. The results to date are mixed, with some unexpected consequences to the individuals exposed to chemicals.
The third tier are the dozens of events that occur anywhere oil washes up on shore. BP is attempting to mange this aspect of the spill as well. It's clearly not working, with impacted states beginning to take the heat for not doing enough.
A reorganization of the entire process is badly needed. BP clearly needs to focus its energy on stopping the leak. The federal government needed to and still needs to step up responsibility and take action on mitigating the the impact of the oil that has already escaped instead of attempting to armchair quarterback the scene with conflicting messages. And local state governments ought to have taken the lead on individual events, with support from various environmental groups, to keep the beaches clear and clean up as the oil made landfall.
Sure, BP could still act as consultants on the second and third tier events, increasing its presence as each event is resolved. And they ought not to be acting alone. Some of the companies that have a partial responsibility are all but silent on the issue.
And the blame game? Who cares about that?
Considering the amount of oil that has spilled into the Gulf Coast, the top kill solution (if it works) is only the beginning of the environmental events to come. The blame will eventually come to light as investigations continue. What will also be the subject of great debate is why the federal government sought to look like it was in control early on, but then demonstrated only a presence.
Public relations alone cannot solve such a crisis alone. Neither can the various boycotts. If anything, boycotts could make the situation worse despite the reasons some people say to move ahead.
Healthier ways to participate in the crisis at this time include any number of efforts. One beneficiary of a satirical Twitter account BPGlobalPR is to raise funds for the Gulf Restoration Network. The boycotts, if any, can wait until after the spill.
Public relations is always reliant on the actual plan.
When any plan to deal with a crisis is bad, the symptom is improper communication. For its part, BP has attempted to keep communication channels flowing, but it is clearly holding back. They seem to be focused on a singular thought that if they fix everything and then prove themselves to be only partly to blame, then they may be able to justify the clean green logo.
However, as Geoff Livingston points out, that is not the case. He writes that the collective "crisis PR has been terrible with missteps on resolution, horrific transparency on possible solutions, false accounting of actual daily oil spill amounts, the policing of beaches to prevent media reporting, bickering between BP and the EPA, dispersants’ negative impact, a new climate bill that endorses further off-shore drilling, 19 new off-shore drilling licenses since Deep Horizon, etc., etc., on and on."
He says the crisis might be insurmountable for the company. I'm not sure yet, but only because BP is much more than BP. BP is Castrol, Arco, Aral, am/pm, and even the Wild Bean Cafe. It's also a leader in biofuel technology. It's investing in solar technology. It's investing in wind. It's investing in emerging coal conversion technologies. And the list goes on.
You won't read about many of these efforts for the time being. BP is smart enough to keep the focus where is belongs, but there is more to the company than meets the eye. Where it is less adept, obviously, is in its ability to work beyond its internal sphere. Perhaps they think they are too big to do that nowadays. But they are not the only ones.
Generally, in the past, sometimes the federal government would be slow to take charge and delegate a national disaster. But ultimately, the federal government would. This time around, the crisis plan matches the PR plan. Every stakeholder in the oil spill crisis has its own message. And while it is said in many different ways, the underlying theme is "not me."
Other voices around the Web with a focus on communication.
• The Dirty Business of BP's Corporate Reputation Clean Up by Jennifer Janviere.
• Its Fake Twitter Stream Has Twice the Followers of the Real Thing by Jim Edwards
• How Not To Get “Brandjacked” Like BP Global PR by Olivier Blanchard