Spilling the Beans


Good crisis communication is one of the most important things for any company or organization to have. When an unexpected disaster leads consumers to question a company, it is vital that a quick, well-thought out response follow immediately. At Emerson, Dr. Gregory Payne (currently on sabbatical) instructs a Crisis Communication course which covers types, phases, planning, working with media and more.

In an article from Businessweek.com, Carmine Gallo offers five simple steps to better crisis communication. Examples of how each technique can benefit a company (or hurt, if done improperly) were demonstrated following the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Industry giant BP had a lot of explaining to do following the incident, and the way the response was handled saved the company from going under.

Today, if one were to search for BP’s website, you would see their revamped slogan: “Still Working & Committed,” followed by the tagline “BP is still committed to restoring the Gulf. Follow the progress.” A shallow search of the site reveals dozens of attempts to lighten the severity of the crisis. Mainly, the company seems to be striving to prove that the spill is not leaving any lasting effects on the areas affected.

This brings me to Gallo’s first point: express genuine empathy. BP released several videos of workers cleaning up the oil, washing animals, and asking locals about the damage. In all of the clips, BP stresses the fact that their main concern is to reconstruct the living conditions of the affected areas, for both humans and animals. BP mentions giving several billion dollars to the restoration effort, including $500 million for scientists to study the lasting effects on the ecosystem. Note: A 2008 study at Eastern Illinois University by W. Timothy Coombs and Sherry published in Public Relations Review claims “for non-victims, expressions of sympathy or compensation are just as effective as apology when it comes to post-crisis reputations, anger, account acceptance, and negative word-of-mouth intentions,” (Source).

Tip #2: Own the message quickly. In the digital age, news spreads almost simultaneously with the occurrence of an event. A company must be the first to admit fault and explain the facts. Every outlet must be covered, too, from social media to television stations to company stakeholders. The same 2008 study also mentions that “the vast majority of the targets for public crisis response strategies are stakeholders who are not victims of the crisis,” (Source). On a section of BP’s website dedicated to the “Deepwater Horizon Incident,” the company expresses their sense of responsibility, their commitment to the Gulf region, and how the company will be changing for the future.

Tip #3: Commit to complete transparency. Being open and inviting shows confidence in your company and its products/services. Since part of the controversy with the BP spill had to do with safety, the company released a photo of workers in the Deepwater Horizon Command Center. Unfortunately, the attempt to show competency backfired when it was discovered that the image was fake. BP’s post-production people duplicated images of monitors and poorly pasted them over broken ones. The shabby job was explained by a company spokesperson in this way: “”We’ve instructed our post-production team to refrain from doing this in the future,” said the spokesman in an e-mail to the Washington Post (Source). Altering the image was a mistake, but owning up to it and providing an original image helped cool the scandal.

Tip #4: Put a face on the industry. Pick a spokesperson for the incident before the media gives the crisis a bad image. BP turned to Iris Cross, the General Manager of External Relations for the Gulf Coast Restoration Organization. Cross speaks in several short videos the company released to show the progress of the cleanup. The even more effective part of the videos is the cast of locals. Beach photographers, lifeguards, and fishermen all comment on how beautiful the beaches are again thanks to BP’s thorough cleanup job.

Tip #5: Train your spokespeople. Sounds brainless, but the media can be nasty. It’s easy to be misinterpreted or misquoted, especially if words are taken out of context. Make sure all spokespersons for the company have the same facts/story and that they are also prepared for difficult questions. If the story isn’t perfect, the public will quickly come up with other theories. Conspiracy theories can easily accumulate and get out of hand if a company doesn’t continually answer the public’s questions. For BP, many conspiracy theories exist regarding the oil spill, but none seem to get too much support.

In essence, there are four main components of dealing with a crisis: prevention, preparation, recognition, and response. These components, as explained by Timothy Coombs in his book Ongoing Crisis Communication, can save an entire company from going under. In regard to the example of BP, the company is now adding more safety features to prevent future leaks. New hardware is also being installed so that if a leak were to start, a worker could press a button from anywhere and plug the well.

An essay published in Public Relations Review in 2007 by Robert Ulmer, Matthew Seeger, and Timothy Sellnow argues that “renewal, along with image restoration, is an important genre of post-crisis discourse” (Source).  For BP, it is yet to be determined if revamping the company’s facilities and company presence will be enough to regain the trust of their customers and stakeholders.



[Lilly is a freshmen Communications major and contributing writer to our Department blog. – Sandy]

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