BP’s New Crisis Communications Challenge


After finally learning the criminal charges the federal government has lodged against the oil giant, and agreeing yesterday to pay $4.5 billion – the largest criminal penalty in U.S. history – BP’s new challenge will be regaining the trust of its publics, the government and its former partners. None of that will be easy until the outstanding civil matters are settled (my recommendation) or adjudicated (BP’s stated plan).

This is advanced crisis communications. BP’s primary goal should be to put all outstanding elements of this crisis behind them as quickly as possible. While the criminal charges are now hanging over BP’s head, it is likely that a plea agreement of some kind will be reached. But criminal charges – serious though they are – will not impede the company’s ability to return to business as usual.

Civil matters of this nature typically end with the defendant, BP, writing a check. Or checks.  What is up in the air right now are the number of zeroes involved.

Rather than fight “vigorously” (the company’s chairman’s word) in a prolonged public battle that will do the company no good in the long run, BP should weigh the tangible outlay of cash – which they virtually print themselves! – against the intangible, but more important, trust factor. It is a classic Pyrrhic battle paradigm.

The company blundered badly in its earlier Congressional testimony by listening too closely to lawyers whispering sweet “say nothings” in their ears. That was a huge crisis communications error. Now is the time to listen to seasoned crisis managers and crisis communicators who have the ability and the vision to truly look at the big picture, not just the legal straightjacket that will prevent BP from the freedom of getting back to normal.