Thursday, January 6, 2011

What the BP Spill tells us about the Future of Crisis Communications

Editor's Note: This is guest post from my good friend and crisis comms pro Neil Chapman. Neil and I spent a good bit of time together (along with scores of other communicators) working the BP oil spill. These are his thoughts about what we can all learn from this unprecedented crisis.)

Goodbye 2010.  Last year saw different crises – the horrific Haiti earthquake, the ash cloud air chaos and snow muddle, both in the UK and US. Along with scores of communications professionals, I was caught up in the BP oil spill for too much of 2010.

Both a human and environmental disaster, the event was complex and extremely expensive in its emotional and economic toll. Any organization facing an emergency or crisis would be wise to learn lessons from the incident, without the costs that befell BP.

Reports and inquiry testimony are readily available to study. BP has produced its own investigation report and a technical lessons learned document with accompanying DVD. 

Many pundits have shared opinions about where BP went wrong and what it should have done. Here are some observations, that can point to where organizations might start to look for lessons relevant to them:

Readiness - an every-day investment
In a crisis, time is precious, priorities key. Whatever the world thinks, BP was more prepared than many companies. Meetings need a purpose, priorities must be established, decisions need to come quickly, communications must be clear and concise. These are all good skills and habits worth cultivating for every day business, but it takes training and practice. 

Know the system
If outside agencies, especially emergency services, respond to a corporation’s incident, it will likely be managed using an established response system with tried and tested procedures and protocols. Corporate responders – including senior management – need to be familiar with the system.

It’s an online world
BP America's Facebook Page
Most conversations and coverage about a crisis now occur online. Corporate communicators who believe they should focus solely on traditional, mainstream media during a crisis will miss most of what is being said about them by default.

Social media smart
A crisis is not the time to learn the challenges and opportunities of social media such as You Tube, Twitter and Facebook. These channels can hurt and help at the same time. Corporate communicators need to be social media savvy, knowing when and how they can use these channels in a crisis. And tomorrow there will be a new one to learn about.

A mobile world
As well as being online, the world carries the internet on its hip or in a purse. To reach key audiences on the go, corporate communicators cannot be hidebound by the technology they are permitted or know how to use.  

Information discipline
To provide timely, accurate, on-message information to the outside world and across an organisation requires discipline to ensure it is shared effectively inside too. Information discipline gets harder over time, as people shift in and out or they are spread over geography and time zones. Has your organization got a system other than email?

Plan for help
Chances are a corporate communications department will need extra people to cope with the tremendous information demand during a crisis. To bring them on-board takes time and effort, just when you need both for other priorities. Learn how to integrate extra resources quickly and coordinate with other agencies.

Communications processes
A corporate communications manual provides clear "how to" instructions that save time and help integrate the "new hands" an organization needs. Have you got one?

Leaders – be hard, be soft
A crisis tests any leader’s people skills. Responders need honest feedback, positive and negative. If something or someone isn’t working, the problem has to be fixed quickly to keep the response on track. But at the same time, people need to be "nurtured" when the going gets tough for them.

Beware of the toll
 Crises wear people down. The strain can show up at work or at home. Relationships may break. Any corporation that sees its people as an important asset needs to provide effective employee support in a crisis. The first step is to make sure they are trained.

Think strategic
It’s hard to see the writing on the wall with your back to it! It’s too easy to get trapped into focusing on an immediate challenge – and not look far enough ahead. A team needs to be thinking long term from the outset.

Don’t make it worse
Until the world thinks the crisis is fixed, there’s a lot an organization can say to make things worse for itself. Stay on message and talk "actions, actions, actions".

BP’s crisis was the first energy industry disaster of the social media age. The result was that information – good and bad - travelled at an exceptionally fast rate, was dominated by digital and saw demand for it go through the roof. But some of the most effective communication took place face-to-face.

The communications landscape is now much, broader than it was. Organizations – and particularly corporate communicators – should take note and learn because 2011 will bring its own crop of crises.

Neil Chapman worked as a communicator for BP until last year. He has 25+ years of experience dealing with crises and difficult public affairs issues around the globe. He founded Alpha Voice Communications consultancy to focus on crisis communications readiness, presentation training and issues management. Go to: to find out more.

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