Case Study: BP Oil Spill


This lesson has addressed the key components of ethical principles in crisis communication, including the ethical principles of responsibility, accountability, and humanistic care. The case of BP oil spill in 2010 provides an important example for understanding how these principles are valued by public opinion in a crisis situation, and how the communication actions by a corporation in this type of circumstances might have long-term effect on the brand image of the organization.

On April 20, 2010, a BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, causing what has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and taking the lives of 11 rig workers. For 87 straight days, oil and methane gas spewed from an uncapped wellhead, 1 mile below the surface of the ocean. The federal government estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Mistakes in Initial Response

According to NPR, BP’s action has become a textbook example of how not to do crisis management. BP executives declared it was not their accident, blamed their contractors and made the company look arrogant and callous. CEO Tony Hayward repeated insensitive comments in public, like this one: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I'd like my life back.” He also suggested that the environmental impact of the spill would be “very, very modest.” Images of Hayward attending a yacht race just 48 hours after a hostile interrogation by a US congressional committee on the oil spill, provoked sharp criticism on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the company, formerly British Petroleum, officially changed its name to BP in 2001, Americans consider it a foreign company even though it has just as many American shareholders as British ones, and its biggest operations are in the United States.

PR Actions

To sooth angry Americans, BP aired a multimillion-dollar national TV spot in June in which Hayward pledges: "We will make this right." Hayward also promised BP would clean up every drop of oil and “restore the shoreline to its original state.” President Barack Obama said the money spent on the ads should have gone to cleanup and compensating devastated fisherman and small business owners. The ad indicated that the company didn't even follow its own internal guidelines for damage control after a spill. Its own spill plan, filed the year before with the federal government, says of public relations: “No statement shall be made containing any of the following: promises that property, ecology or anything else will be restored to normal.”

BP also bought online ads that pop up when people search for information about the oil spill on Google and Yahoo. The ads, which link to BP's own oil-response sites, typically appear above or to the right of other search results. BP said the idea was to help people on the Gulf find the right forms to fill out quickly and effectively. However, many people suggest it's a move to steer searchers away from bad press for BP.

Crisis management experts stated the only reliable way to repair BP's badly tarnished image should be the obvious one — to plug the hole where oil was still leaking out. It would take nearly 3 months before the leak was stopped, and nearly 5 months before the well was declared effectively dead. Public relations experts pointed out that BP ran its crisis communications in the same “ham-fisted” manner they’ve run the clean-up operation in the Gulf.

"BP's handling of the spill from a crisis management perspective will go down in history as one of the great examples of how to make a situation worse by bad communications," said Michael Gordon, of New York-based crisis PR firm Group Gordon Strategic Communications. “It was a combination of a lack of transparency, a lack of straight talking and a lack of sensitivity to the victims. When you're managing an environmental disaster of this magnitude you not only have to manage the problem but also manage all the stakeholders.”


BP attempts to convince people that it appears the Gulf of Mexico is healing itself after a while. In 2015, BP released PR materials that highlight the Gulf’s resilience, as well as a scientific report showing the area is making a rapid recovery. But evidence is mounting that five years after millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf, wildlife there is still struggling to rebound.

In June 2016, BP issued its final estimate of the cost of the spill, the largest in U.S. history. The total amount for the cost of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was $61.6 billion. Under the settlement with BP, five states in the Gulf area and local governments will receive payments over the next dozen years. The funds will enable them to ramp up vital restoration work along the coast. BP continues to settle claims from business owners and residents who say they were harmed.

Moral of the Story

In conclusion, this is a classic case example of why organizational decision making in crisis situations should be based on ethical principles such as accountability and responsibility. Public criticism and outrage following the incident not only focused on the oil spill, but on the lack of remorse and sincerity from the top management in crisis response, particularly the lack of sympathy to the victims of the disaster. The failure by BP’s leadership to respond to the disaster with sufficient speed and attention demonstrates that crisis preparedness and ethical guidelines should become part of the organization culture.

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