Product Manager, Solution Architect, Amateur Historian
In the Spring of 2010, BP’s DeepWater Horizon Offshore Drilling Rig exploded during an exploration mission. What ensued was the most massive ecological disaster in American history. Over 4.9 million barrels of oil streamed into the Gulf of Mexico for almost five months. Besides the destruction of America’s third coast shoreline, it created a summer-long closure of most of the Gulf of Mexico-based fisheries and tourism. The cost for environmental cleanup and the economic recovery packages for localities almost destroyed British Petroleum (BP), one of the largest energy companies in the world. At one stage-as fears of bankruptcy loomed across the globe-BP even had their credit line temporarily frozen. Only after the announcement of a $20 billion rescue package did BP stabilize, still not enough to cover the Gulf States’ tourism losses (2010–2013), which came in at just over $23 billion.
The following is a list of lessons and observations from one team that assisted BP in the summer of 2010. Experts from all over the energy industry came to help. At one point my uncle, a former Exxon engineer, came out of retirement to work on the robot being used to cap the underwater well. This oil spill was not only seen as a BP problem but a global environmental problem, one which could hamper the entire energy sector. Cross-sector collaboration across the industry, including public partnership, proved crucial in the monumental feat of engineering required to cap the well. Besides the engineering behind the scenes, were a group of communications teams trying to rally the BP troops and talk to an angry public. While setting up defenses to fend off a vigorous and hungry press corps asking for hourly updates.
The DeepWater Horizon disaster was at a scale and impact never seen and, therefore, can provide some guiding lessons and principles for navigating the Covid-19 pandemic. Though lesser in magnitude, DeepWater Horizon, created one of the most significant tourism shutdowns in history, across several regions, and one company, BP, was at the forefront of managing a massive recovery and logistics project.
Learning to Talk to The People: The Need For Community Relations Training
In the days following the disaster, the CEO, Tony Hayword, continued to make unforced errors in the media, including frequent gaffs, a tone-deaf attitude, and even at one point shouting at a camera operator. One of the critical early issues communications teams discovered was a lack of media and community engagement training for the BP executives. In contrast to other energy companies, like ARCO, who in the late ’90s required Vice Presidents to have community relations scores on all their performance reviews. BP was immediately caught flat-footed as the onslaught of journalists’ questions piled up. At one point, Hayword embarked on a sailing race during the height of the crisis, which was captured by the media. Eventually, BP replaced Hayword with a Mississippi native, someone who had a better understanding of the local culture.
Recommendation: Mandatory Media and Community Relations training for all Senior Directors and above. Start with Media Relations, but as we recover, we’ll need more and more executives taking on diverse initiatives for community relations.
If Your Work is Visible, Make it Very Visible!
During the initial course of the cleanup, several clean-up crews reported to the central communications office something strange. Locals, driven by their curiosity of beaches lined with clean-up crews in protective armor, were impeding and impeding clean-up efforts. How were they preventing this effort? Well, they were asking simple questions and distracting the cleanup crews?
Clean-up efforts of this nature are efficiently planned and rolled out to minimize environmental damage. Never before had someone imagined a scenario of non-hostile questions from people interested in science or the energy sector. Also, wandering in this Sherlock-like approach was dangerous for the civilians on the beach, as they lacked the required protective gear. That’s when one of the communication consultants had an idea. They merely asked, “what if we formalized this?”
The idea was simple, let’s put up bleacher seats around the beaches where cleanups are happening — having formal seating at a safe distance could quickly quell this unforeseen and invasive voyeurism. This idea worked, and subsequently, BP set an official scheduled program daily for a company representative to explain the chemicals and processes used in the cleanup process. BP Communication Teams rapidly and accidentally facilitated a packed house. They applied this same method all along the Gulf Coast; local affected people had questions, so BP gave them an educational forum.
Recommendation: Let’s make our work more visible; we are already out in the open. How are we helping to restart the travel industry, and how can we scale a visible digital presence and later a physical one? Travel companies will be very visible in the coming months, a vital piece of the strategy should be creating the educational travel forum, the same way BP did on the beaches of Alabama. Advertising should in turn also shift to a Q&A about how to travel. These forums should be dynamically updated to several mass media outlets, eventually developing into weekly forums for the newly anxious travelers.
The StoreFront Strategy: Crafting a Physical Presence
BP needed to re-open the Gulf Coast for business. In part to reduce its recently constructed rescue package it had already signed with the US Government, but also to show a broad-based community relations effort to repair its image. At four months in, BP opened 28 “StoreFronts” around the Gulf Coast and hired BP retirees to staff them. These “StoreFronts” essentially became information depots for the public. The energy sector expertise of the BP retirees, combined with a daily briefing/Q&A with the internal communications teams, became the most effective lever of the BP community engagement campaign. Now afflicted communities had a space to go to get answers -a physical space for a once ethereal multinational company headquartered overseas.
Recommendation: As restrictions ease, we create physical pop-ups to assist newly skeptical and anxious travels. Not as a replacement for customer service, but more as a general travel service, similar to the tourism information volunteers in colored shirts seen in many European cities.
In conclusion, the lesson of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster is clear. Being a visible, empathic, and highly trained presence within the communities we serve will prove crucial in resurrecting goodwill and reinstating consumer confidence to travel. One other thing that kept appearing in my notes, however, was the need for investment in internal communications to employees. BP quickly discovered there was an order-of-magnitude difference in our outcomes when they focused on internal stakeholder communication first, even for employees not involved in the engineering or clean-up efforts. There was a substantial investment early on in external communications with stakeholders. The barrage was coming from all sides, from all four estates of the realm-so at the time-this initial move made sense. In the end, investing in internal communications amplified the external communications and, subsequently, created a positive impact on the communities of the Gulf Coast.