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Aim: To evaluate how BP used conflict communication initiatives contained in sampled press releases to demonstrate to relevant stakeholders, especially the publics and the federal government, that it was deeply involved in oil spill containment efforts.
Methods: The paper employed image restoration theory not only to quell the rising anxiety among the publics with regard to efforts being made to seal the oil leak, but also to win support of the federal government, which at that time appeared to undermine the corporation’s credibility to contain the oil leak.
Results: BP succeeded in:
- engaging the acts of bolstering and transcendence not only to mitigate negative effects of the perceived wrongdoing by reinforcing the statements echoed by the President and passing them as own, but also to suggest a different frame of reference to the crisis; that is, perceiving the crisis as a normal accident rather that an act of unprecedented environmental disaster,
- using transcendence to neutralize accusations made by the publics and government about the credibility of the organization to deal with crisis, and
- using corrective action to pledge funds aimed at undertaking research to restore the situation to normalcy.
Conclusion: Bolstering and transcendence are effective instruments employed by BP to quell the anxiety among stakeholders with the view to minimize damage to its corporate image. Also, the aspect of corrective action within the image restoration theory assisted BP to not only neutralize the adverse comments coming from President Obama and his government, particularly about the company’s ineptitude to contain the oil spill, but also to win the support of the publics through massive funding programs aimed at providing answers to other impending incidents of similar magnitude.
Today, more than ever before, the number of crises incidents and their severity is burgeoning due in part to the mounting complexity of technology and society (Stephens et al., 2005), as well as the probability and high impact of recent crises such as Hurricane Katrina, British Petroleum’s oil spill, and the global financial meltdown caused by the housing bubble (Jung et al., 2005).
Due to multiple exigencies for managing crisis situations in modern settings (Seeger & Padget, 2010), organizations are increasingly developing and adopting diverse strategies to deliver messages explaining the situation to create a positive perception in people about the crisis, but also to remedy the resultant image and reputational damage (Stephens et al., 2005; Coombs, 2007).
The aim of the present paper is to evaluate how British Petroleum (BP) used conflict communication initiatives contained in sampled press releases to demonstrate to relevant stakeholders, especially the publics and the federal government, that it was deeply involved in oil spill containment efforts. It is important to look into this event as it provides crucial insights into understanding and evaluating the interplay between communication strategies of government agencies and corporate actors in crises scenarios.
The paper will proceed as follows: First, background information to the press releases will be availed, followed by the methodology section, which will detail the image restoration theory and how it was used by BP in postcrisis communication. Next, the analysis and evaluation section will undertake a comprehensive analysis of the press releases and image restoration theory with the view to establish if BP was successful not only in maintaining its reputation in the face of a major crisis, but also in winning the support of the U.S. government as it struggled to stop the oil spill. Lastly, the paper will dwell on highlighting important arguments and areas for future study in the conclusion.
As postulated by Safina (2011), “…no profile of events can capture all the facts, the chaos, and the many thousands of pages devoted to what the Gulf of Mexico oil blowout was – and was not” (p. 1). Taking a general outlook, therefore, it was reported in media outlets that BP owned and operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded some 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 rig workers and sending an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the gulf over five months (Rogers, 2012; Swartz & Underwood, 2011). In addition to the catastrophic loss of the rig workers, the oil spill demonstrated to be overwhelming to marine life in the gulf as it wiped out innumerable animals and entire species in the ecosystem.
Following the spill, BP used a multiplicity of crisis communication strategies to post regular press releases on its website and availed more information on social networking sites, especially Tweeter, with the view to avail contextually relevant information to influence how the publics and the government responded in terms of reputation threat posed by the crisis (Bell, 2010).
Among the most active actor in BP’s conflict management issue was its CEO Tony Harward, who on various dates in May 2010 posted communication that seemed to imply that BP was happy about the stand taken by the federal government and that the company was ready to meet all its obligations, including funding clean-up and research initiatives, as well as compensating individuals and businesses that suffered immeasurable losses (BP, 2010a; BP, 2010b; BP, 2011c).
Much of BP’s communication was targeted at the publics and government, and was availed in a quick, open, and consistent manner (Dean, 2004), not only to reinforce a sustainable relationship with the people but also constrict the probability of negative messages reaching its main stakeholders. Indeed, Estresvag (2011) postulates that the 2010 BP oil spill was “…a major event where the top tiers of the political and corporate world were communicating on the same issue over a prolonged period of time” (p. 7).
In one of the press releases, CEO Harward acknowledges the plan by the U.S. President that BP should immediately prioritize stopping the leak and mitigating the damage, and that the company was still open to more recommendations from the President on the best way forward (BP, 2010a). In the second press release, Harward acknowledges that the company is absolutely aware and indeed shares the President’s sense of urgency in dealing with the oil spill, and how BP has engaged scientists and engineers from across the world to clear up the spill to the satisfaction of the federal government (BP, 2010b).
Lastly, in the third press release, Harward communicates to the U.S. government that BP has committed up to $500 million to an open research initiative aimed at studying the impact of the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf Coast (BP, 2010c).
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The above press releases are interesting, in my view, since they principally targeted the federal government, which at the time was fuming with range due to BP’s perceived unwillingness to expedite the processes of sealing the oil leak and cleaning up the environment. Indeed, some commentators suggested that President’s Obama’s rhetoric about the devastating oil spill took the shape of persuasive attacks against the oil conglomerate (Ertresvag, 2011), but BP responded almost instantaneously using the social media to calm the nerves of the publics and update the federal government on the progress they were making towards sealing the oil leak (Rogers, 2012).
The present paper, therefore, lends support to the thesis that although the federal government appeared to undermine BP’s credibility to contain the oil leak, the corporation effectively employed crisis management strategies to quell the anxiety among the publics and the government with the view to minimize damage to its corporate image and reputation.
The theoretical perspective purposed for use in this paper is the image restoration theory. Up to this point, it is clear that the BP oil spill represented a critical crisis in the corporation’s history. From the perspective of communication, according to Seeger & Padgett (2010), “…a crisis creates high levels of uncertainty with key stakeholders and thus an intense need for immediate communication about important information” (pp 128-129). It is this need that triggers BP’s management to provide explanations and accounts for the crisis by using image restoration theory to address postcrisis communication exigencies for repairing injured reputations.
Seeger & Padgett (2010) argue that “…image restoration theory has grown from a specialized area of genre criticism in rhetorical analysis into a comprehensive body of theory and research detailing the postcrisis communication strategies organizations use to repair the damage done by some perceived wrongdoing” (p. 129). Developed in 1995 by William Benoit, this perspective is not only grounded in the belief that communication influences how stakeholders perceive the organization in times of crisis, but also on the assumption that image and reputation are precious assets for individuals and organizations, that image threats occur regularly, and that focused communication can assist to repair the image (Jung et al., 2011; Seeger & Padgett, 2010).
To provide the selected theoretical perspective with a popular underpinning, this brief section aims to sample some studies that have been done using image restoration theory. One particular study by Jung et al (2011) reveals how Samsung Corporation used image restoration strategies, especially transcendence, denial, attacking the accuser, and bolstering, with the view to protect its image and reputation against high-level corruption charges instituted by a whistleblower.
In another study, Cowden & Sellnow (2002) describe how Northwest Airlines (NWA) used image restoration strategies in issues advertisements to counter the adverse effects of the 1998 pilot’s strike. In the third study, Coombs and Schmidt (2000) analyze “…claims about the effectiveness of various image restoration strategies used in Texaco’s efforts to combat a racism incident” (p. 163).
Moving on, the image restoration theory works best with the sampled press releases from BP’s CEO in that there is compelling evidence to indicate that President Obama felt the corporation was not doing enough to put the crisis under control as demonstrated by his somewhat persuasive attacks against BP (Ertresvag, 2011).
As suggested by Seeger & Padgett (2010), the adoption of image restoration strategies by BP was in its best interest in terms of defense and image restoration as these strategies are best suited for organizations identified to have caused or contributed to a crisis or those entities that have in some way failed to mount an effective and proactive response to a crisis.
Lastly, it is imperative to note that “…Benoit’s five image-restoration strategies include denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness of the event, corrective action, and mortification” (Seeger & Padgett, 2010, p. 130). In analysis, the paper will focus on how BP used the strategies of reducing offensiveness for the event and undertaking corrective action, with the view to minimize damage to its corporate image and reputation.
Analysis & Evaluation
The following section will detail how BP was able to employ image restoration theory not only to quell the rising anxiety among the publics with regard to efforts being made to seal the oil leak and to protect the delta from further environmental degradation, but also to win support of the federal government which at that time appeared to undermine the corporation’s credibility to contain the oil leak. It is important to note that two foremost stakeholders targeted by these communications were the publics and the federal government; while the publics perceived BP as part of an industry with very low public trust due to its acts of greed in exploring oil resources (Ertresvag, 2011), the government questioned the corporation’s credibility in closing up the leak in spite of the fact that BP, as the majority lease owner, was held responsible for the leak and thus was financially responsible for the cleanup (Rogers, 2012).
Additionally, the President was aware that a discontented public may have shifted the blame to the his government, claiming that it acted inappropriately in allowing BP to operate in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico without adequate safeguards (Ertresvag, 2011).
Moving on, this section aims to develop three critical arguments that lend credence to the thesis. The first argument deals with the response BP’s CEO provided to Obama’s remarks upon his first visit to the Gulf Coast on 2 May 2010. In his keynote address, Obama painted a dull picture of the crisis, not only describing the oil spill as a massive and potentially unparalleled environmental disaster (Ertresvag, 2011), but also suggesting that it was indeed the federal government and not BP that was in the forefront in leading containment efforts (Rogers, 2012).
On the same day, BP though CEO Hayward, released communication not only praising the government for demonstrating leadership in containing the situation, but also taking sides with the President that the foremost priority was “…to stop the leak and mitigate the damage” (BP, 2010a, para. 1).
In this particular communication, not only is CEO Harward open to recommendations from the President on the best way forward in containing the leak, but he refers to the spill as an ‘accident’ while Obama views it an enormous and potentially unparalleled environmental disaster (Ertresvag, 2011). Upon revisiting the image restoration theory, it is evident that “…the category of reduction of the perceived offensiveness of the crisis event includes three strategies: bolstering, differentiation, and transcendence” (Seeger & Padgett, 2010, p. 130).
In terms of this communication, we can therefore suggest that the CEO was engaging in the act of bolstering and transcendence not only by mitigating the negative effects of the perceived wrongdoing by reinforcing the statements echoed by the President and passing them as own, but also by suggesting a different frame of reference to the crisis; that is, perceiving the crisis as a normal accident rather that an act of unprecedented environmental disaster.
In the second communication, dated 14 May 2010, BP’s CEO not only thanks the President and his administration for their continuing engagement in efforts to contain the spill, but also insinuates that the company totally “…understand and share President Obama’s sense of urgency over the length of time [the] complex task [was] taking” (BP, 2010b, para. 1).
This communication was a rejoinder to Obama’s attacks on BP for its alleged incapability to seal the leak (Rogers, 2012). Here, it can be argued that the CEO successfully employed the aspect of transcendence in the typology of reduction of the perceived offensiveness of the crisis event within the image restoration theory to demonstrate that indeed they were reading from the same script with the federal government on how to minimize the crisis by “…working closely with scientists and engineers from across the whole oil industry, from government agencies and departments, and with local officials along the Gulf Coast” (BP, 2010b, para.2).
Such a statement, according to Coombs & Schmidt (2000), not only acts to neutralize accusations made by other relevant stakeholders (in this case the publics and government) about the credibility of the organization to deal with crisis, but also minimizes the adverse effects of crisis by using soft rhetoric to counter the accusations of stakeholders.
Lastly, on 24 May 2010, BP “…announced a commitment of up to $500 million to an open research program studying the impact of the Deepwater Horizon incident, and its associated response, on the marine and shoreline environment of the Gulf of Mexico” (BP, 2010c, para. 1). This communication, in my view, was released to reinforce the image of a company that was committed to doing everything within its reach to minimize the impact of oil spill.
It is worth mentioning that the publics and government were increasingly losing hope on BP’s ability to contain the situation (Rogers, 2012), thus the need for BP to counter with this statement not only to repair its image, but also to outline steps it was taking to address the impacts of the spill (BP, 2010c). Here, it can be argued that BP successfully utilized Benoit’s aspect of transcendence not only to provide an avenue for amassing futuristic evidence about how such a crisis can be handled through research initiatives (Schwartz & Underwood, 2011), but also to indirectly compensate the spill victims (David, 2011).
In taking corrective action, we see BP pledging funds aimed at undertaking research to restore the situation to the state of affairs that prevailed before the objectionable oil spill. Indeed, according to Seeger & Padgett (2010), such a communication coming from the accused party promises “…to mend one’s ways’ and make changes to prevent the recurrence of the undesirable act” (p. 130).
From BP’s crisis scenario, it can be concluded that the acts of bolstering and transcendence in reducing the perceived offensiveness of the crisis are effective instruments that could be employed by an organization to quell the anxiety among relevant stakeholders with the view to minimize damage to its corporate image.
Additionally, it has been demonstrated how BP employed the aspect of corrective action not only to neutralize the adverse comments coming from President Obama and his government, particularly about the company’s ineptitude to contain the oil spill, but also to win the support of the publics through massive funding programs aimed at providing answers to other impending incidents of similar magnitude.
The present study, more than anything else, emphasizes the role of undertaking strategic responses in postcrisis communication not only to counter some of the allegations that may work to the disadvantage of the organization, but also in making sure that the publics and other relevant stakeholders have detailed factual information following a crisis to promote detailed decision-making.
Coombs (2004) posits that lack of detailed information following a crisis gives rise to rumors and inaccurate perceptions of the organization engaged in the crisis. Possible areas for future study include determining the role of truth in countering accusations using the aspects of bolstering and transcendence, as well as evaluating if undertaking corrective action through promising monetary rewards reduces criminal or civil culpability for the organization in question.
There exists a multiplicity of valuable insights that a reader in crisis communication can synthesize from this piece; however, the most important insight, in my view, is for the organization in crisis to always have a strategic response to issues as they arise in mainstream media outlets if they expect to repair the damage that may be occasioned by a crisis of any kind.
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