Skip to content

PR Lessons Learned From BP Oil Spill

Note: An expanded version of this blog entry will appear in July in Skyscapes, the online magazine for the Kansas Society of CPAs.

At first, I thought British Petroleum handled the spill very well when it told the public it was the group responsible for cleanup, even though the spill may not have entirely been BP’s fault. I hushed the naysayers – my fellow PR colleagues – who said there was way more trouble ahead for BP.

Of course, I realized sooner than last weekend that BP faced a huge PR problem. Every day, it seems BP buries itself deeper and deeper in the mud. The public is distrustful, and for goodness sake, those pictures of birds covered in oil makes my heart sink.

I’m quite sure BP employs a huge PR entity with experienced professionals who totally know what they’re doing. I’m also sure the professionals assert themselves whenever they can to advise BP on what to do. Yet, with all of that preparation, expense and time spent, was BP prepared? From the public view, the answer would be “no.”

Just as you would create a proactive disaster recovery plan, you can create a proactive PR plan to handle the media when they appear on your doorstep. The way to do this is to write a document that covers as many “what if” situations as possible, then provide “action” steps for each situation.

You can be prepared by pointing the media to a designated spokesperson for your company, distributing background information you can share with the media and provide other materials that shows you already did the homework. The media will appreciate your stance, and while they certainly won’t back off of the problem, they may treat you a bit more kindly.

Spokesperson training is essential. Most of the time, the designated person to speak on behalf of the company is the CEO or president, but more often than not, this person isn’t trained to answer the kinds of questions reporters ask when they are working on a story.

Spokesperson training is typically held over the course of one to two days, with tough questions asked in mock interviews that are taped for review and learning. I’ve neither conducted nor participated in a spokesperson training in which the attendees didn’t walk out feeling smarter and empowered, and this includes anyone who walks in at the beginning of training who says he/she did not need to attend because the person already knew how to conduct themselves.

Part of your PR plan should include your internal audiences, stakeholders or anyone else connected to the company, including clients and customers. If a tragedy occurred, you need to communicate immediately to all your audiences, and you can only do this if you are prepared to act within a very short amount of time.

Every situation varies, so there is no one cookie-cutter solution to what you’re going to communicate. However, the more information you can impart without legal repercussions, the better off you’ll be because you were able to tell you audiences what they want to hear: an honest take on the situation and how you’re going to solve it.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I don’t know where you get the idea that CEOs are not trained to handle tough questions. I’ve trained hundreds of corporate executives at some of America’s largest organizations, and in almost every case the top executive participated. (You can check our website at to see a few.) We don’t always recommend that the top exec. goes forward to the media — that depends on several factors — but I don’t know of a top 100 CEO who has not been trained.

    Sometimes the training is not as effective as we’d like, and in such cases I have no hesitation in telling the top dog that he or she ought to stay out of the range of cameras. But in general I would say that if a company is savvy enough to have an up-to-date crisis communication plan, they are savvy enough to have trained themselves their people to deal with the media as a part of that process.

  2. Spokesperson Training can be a good way to develop someone’s ability to handle intense pressure with intense composure so to speak. It can also hone the skills of an individual in terms of addressing concerns raised by several people all at once, often very heated and controversial. It takes a lot of poise to handle such situation.

    However, no amount of training can ever prepare one for this. Even with intense pressure, if the spokesperson is not head strong enough, he will definitely buckle or worse, maybe “eaten up alive” by the media oftentimes referred to as the “predators”.

    More than spending lots of time training, I think a certain spokesperson has to really have clear mind, has a lot of authority and character, and most importantly a lot of patience!

Comments are closed.

Back To Top