Strategic Communications

Deepwater Horizon: A Lesson about Leadership Mistake in Corporate Crisis


A movie titled “Deepwater Horizon” has just released in September 2016. The movie is actually inspired by a true story. In April 2010, a huge explosion happened in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. As fatalities, 11 people died, 17 injured, and 205 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the world largest industrial disasters in the history, charging British Petroleum (BP) as the company that operates in the oil rig. US president Barrack Obama signed an order to launch a criminal investigation on the case, therefore put BP into the worst corporate crisis they can even imagine.

Unfortunately, public opinion about BP bad reputation in managing crisis has long been shaped. This particular image referred to the CEO’s bad tactics in coping with the crisis. Instead of showing a strong leadership attitude that everyone in this world would be expected, Tony Hayward was repeatedly demonstrated insensitivity, arrogance, and denial upon the issues.

After the Gulf oil accident, New York Times reported that Hayward said to his fellow executives, “what the hell did we do to deserve this?” Responding to the Telegraph reporter’s question about the oil spill impact, he said, “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest”. He has also triggered criticism as saying “I want my life back” after apologizing for the disaster.

For this leadership crisis that certainly put a severe headache for every PR practitioners, BP was certainly spending a huge amount of money to repair its image. BP launched TV ads featuring Tony Hayward apologizes and intention to take full responsibility for cleaning up in the Gulf. They also run the print ads in newspapers. The copy for both TV and newspaper ads conveyed the same message: “We will get this done. We will make this right.”

The ad contained a very vague message. They promise to get it done, but people can see that they can’t even get their CEO under control. I would argue that BP effort in managing communication in time of crisis was overshadowed by their leadership outburst.

Therefore, when BP replaced Hayward with Bob Dudley, they made up the earlier PR failure by putting special attention in social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, in order to get news out to traditional media and to make people feeling heard. BP also set up Youtube channel. They created The Gulf Stories series to share Gulf coast resident stories about their life after the explosion and citing testimonials about BP efforts to make up for their mistake. Compared with the Tony Hayward apology, This Youtube video is one of effective communication tools to repair the damaged reputation, where they admit their mistake and asking remedy by saying, “What happened here five years ago changed us.”

While it may be true when the expert said that even the best PR cannot solve the man-made disaster effect like this Gulf oil spill, they still can communicate better to their key stakeholders.  In my perspective, BP was supposed to have special spokesperson and lobbyist for each key stakeholder. This way, the corporate communication would be more targeted, especially in post-crisis image restoration.

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