Using Multiple Leaders for Crisis Issue Management: The Case of the 2010 BP Spill

The Public Faces of a Crisis: 

Using Multiple Leaders for Crisis Issue Management

Audra Lawson, Ph.D.

Most models of crisis leadership focus on a single person – typically the CEO – as the critical public face during a major crisis.  Yet, there are multiple roles that leaders must serve including psychological roles to reaffirm officials and stakeholders, functional roles to direct and manage the materials needs in a crisis (i.e., getting the right people in the right places), and certainly public relations roles focusing on managing the grand narrative about the crisis and the company.  Not only can these roles result in tensions between the expectations and realities of crisis leadership, but leaders are likely to see their roles changing during a crisis based on the emergent issues. This makes crisis leadership a complex concept – much more so than we typically consider.  Simply stated, a new perspective on crisis leadership is needed.

Most often, new perspectives emerge out of necessity.  When you can see an oil spill from outer space, you know it’s going to be a crisis management challenge.  The 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a five-month marathon crisis with lasting lessons in the use of social media, corporate social responsibility, strategic communication, but most especially leadership.  With the BP case, though CEO Tony Hayward was certainly ‘front and center’ in the company’s messaging, we saw many ‘leaders’ working to manage the crisis in the media – both corporate leaders like Hayward, Chairman of the Board Carl-Henric Svanberg, and incoming CEO Bob Dudley as well as functional leaders like Harry Thierens, BP’s vice president for drilling operations or Kent Wells, BP’s vice president for safety.  With the active use of many different leaders, the BP case pushes us reconsider the role of “leadership” in crisis communication.

Thus, building on a case study examining BP’s response to the Gulf spill, I propose a model for using multiple leaders to serve different roles during major crises. Over the last two years, I have immersed myself in this case because it’s a benchmark case in crisis management that illuminates the good, the bad, and a more realistic way to view crisis leadership and communication during a major event. In this summary, I will first summarize what my research collaborators[i] and I have found after analyzing more than 5,200 crisis response messages[ii] from BP.  Second, after laying that foundation, I will recommend a new model for deploying multiple leaders during major crises.  Those recommendations will be supported with the results of an image assessment survey conducted one year after the crisis to help more realistically anticipate the outcomes of a multi-leader response to a major crisis.

For a full reporting on this data, please feel free to watch this presentation of the data:

What Does the BP Case Teach Us?

To help reveal that answer, we should begin with why a company in the oil industry serves as an exemplar.  Initially, the oil industry is one of few industries where research examining the influence of corporate social responsibility on corporate policy has been conducted.  In a 2005 piece published in International Affairs, Frynas found that oil companies are paying increased attention to the social and environmental implications of their work.  In particular, we know that BP is keenly aware of the relationship between being social responsible and managing their reputation based on a study of their work in oil exploration in the Faroe Islands reported in by Anderson and Bieniaszewska in the Journal of Corporate Responsibility and Environmental Management in 2005.  This interest in a responsible image and correcting previous safety violations prompted BP to install Tony Hayward as the company’s CEO and commission Ogilvy and Mather to reinvent their brand as “Beyond Petroleum” using green initiatives as the cornerstone of the company’s new brand.  Further in BP’s work to respond to the 2010 spill, my colleagues and I have found that the company’s messaging aligned with crisis communication expert (e.g., Coombs or Benoit) recommendations that companies facing serious transgressions must both communicate sincerity, regret, but also work to restore faith in the company by building faith that their corrective actions are sincere – in short, employing image-oriented restoration rhetoric.

The Leadership Challenge

Throughout the disaster BP’s leaders, their words, actions, and reactions were all scrutinized, questioned, and lampooned.  Yet, negative coverage of leaders should be expected; Ingenhoff and Sommer’s 2010 research published in the Journal of Business Ethics tells us that leaders – especially CEO’s – are typically negatively judged during major crises.  This is only exacerbated when corporate leaders are clumsy in managing media and government relations.  With the BP crisis, we saw plenty of fumbles with Mascarenhas’ article in Newsweek in 2010 dubbing former CEO Tony Hayward as the crisis ‘whipping boy’ as he was vilified for his gaffes including the infamous, “I’d like my life back” statement and spending a day on a yacht during the crisis. It’s not good news for a company in crisis when the President of the United States publicly announces he would have fired Hayward for his gaffes.  By July 2010, American Bob Dudley was named to replace Hayward after his repeated stumbles and alienation of residents on the Gulf coast as well as state and federal officials.

BPLeaderFigure1Within this context, I began examining BP’s leaders assuming I would have the opportunity to use Hayward as the exemplar of
‘what not to do’ in responding to a crisis.  Yet, the story and its conclusions aren’t so simple.  What we found was that not only did BP’s PR team construct a response strategy that was grounded by an ethic of social engagement and responsibility, but that BP’s leaders applied that strategy consistently with all leaders focusing on the messages expressing regret for the spill but consistently affirming that the company was committed to the recovery of the Gulf, the economy, and the environment.  Leaders also tried to paint the picture that BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” branding still applied – that the company itself always maintained values of social responsibility.

From these common themes, the responsive strategies diverged substantially with the greatest separation coming between the corporate leaders (i.e., Svanberg, Hayward, and Dudley) and functional leaders (e.g., Thierens and Wells). Corporate leaders focused on the global messaging of ‘recovery’ and the corporation’s identity, in particular, defending it against outside attacks.  In this way, they seemed to be the lions vigorously protecting the pride.  In contrast, the functional leaders focused on more immediate concerns; emphasizing the company’s work, routine updates on the crisis, and shaping peoples’ understanding of the crisis itself.  As such, the functional leaders seemed like the battlefield generals carrying out an administration’s plans. Thus, they provided initial reactions to the ongoing crisis and issues leaving the larger corporate identity issues to the corporate leaders.

While the battlefield generals were very consistent in their response roles, the corporate lions each tackled more nuanced response roles.  Not surprisingly, BP Chair Carl Svanberg emerged as the definitive voice on BP’s overall position – the genuine leader of the pride.  While using the same communicative strategies as Dudley and Hayward across all five months of the crisis Svanberg’s messaging remained consistent characterizing BP as a responsible company, defending its actions, and focusing on the ways the collaborated with government and nongovernment organizations throughout the crisis. Emergent issues did not seem to influence his messaging, thus his role as the ‘definitive voice’ emerged.

Similarly, Dudley’s messaging remained largely unchanged over the course of the crisis and he emerged as the ‘company man’. His responses solely focused on communicating a pro-BP message no matter whether defending the company, apologizing, or focusing on the future.  Dudley’s role as the company man also meant that he had the simple messaging – his script was direct and unchanging throughout the crisis.

Though he applied the same message strategies as the other corporate leaders, Hayward’s response role stands in stark contrast to the uncompromising approaches from Svanberg and Dudley.  Hayward’s messages were simpler than either of the other corporate leaders, but he was more responsive to emergent issues than the others.  He used corrective strategies when talking about the current state of the crisis, cleanup, and issues related to BP’s leadership; he defended BP in the face of criticism, and he focused on image-oriented messages to try to focus on the company’s character.  Hayward’s role in the crisis was very much the ‘workhorse’ corporate leader; the public face of BP’s crisis delivering appropriate messages of recovery coupled with responses to peoples’ outrage at the crisis.

Lessons Learned from BP’s Leaders

BPLeaderLessonsLearnedAfter digging deeper than the gaffes and seeming leadership vacuum widely criticized and even parodied on South Park, I was surprised at how much BP actually got right in their response.  The company developed a complex, yet synchronized multi-media campaign to inform, apologize, and show how they were going to correct the mistakes and problems.  Yet, not only was BP vilified in the media during the crisis but the results of a large survey I conducted[iii] a year after the crisis still shows that people were hesitant to patronize BP, were cynical about BP’s intentions in the Gulf, and still viewed the company negatively despite reports that BP had done fulfilled promises and remained active in the Gulf region. In critically reflecting on these findings, BP’s actions, and extensive research on crisis response messaging, there are three key lessons that companies facing serious crises can learn from BP.

Lesson 1: Minimize the gaffes.  This is not a new recommendation, but my research very clearly demonstrates that saying all the right words just doesn’t matter if mistakes become the public relations story.  When 25% of the PR time and energy in a serious crisis is devoted to managing leaders’ errors, the reputation repair is going to suffer.  This certainly supports an argument for the centrality of communication skills in the job description for corporate leadership.  However, when corporate leaders don’t come from a communications background, companies must view communication skills as essential to develop among the corporate leaders.  Tony Hayward is a scientist, and by all measures a very good one; however, with all of the positive intentions that he seemed to communicate, his communicative errors were too costly.

Yet, it’s not enough to be an elegant speaker, corporate leaders must also effectively adapt to the cultural needs and expectations of the population(s) to whom they are speaking.  Both Svanberg and Hayward had gaffes based in a lack of skill with intercultural communication.  Svanberg’s infamous ‘small people’ comment was functionally a problem of his own translation of ideas from Swedish to English; however, an innocent misspoken phrase can be very costly in a crisis where the company’s identity and social responsibility are threatened.  Similarly, Hayward did not fare well with an American audience because of a culturally British approach to public discourse.  Matt Lauer skewered Hayward for failing to show emotion about the lives lost and affected by the spill suggesting that it seemed like Hayward felt no compassion.  These kinds of critiques emerge because of a lack of competence in intercultural communication on the part of the leader/ communicator.

Lesson 2:  Leaders must direct the grand narrative about the crisis and the company.   There is a substantial amount of research indicating that while leaders can expect to take much of the criticism when things go wrong, that their ultimate responsibility is to help direct the grand narrative about both the crisis and the company in the media.  My findings very clearly demonstrate that BP’s leaders and PR team said all of the ‘right’ things.  Yet, most of the best material – information that would help people across the US and abroad understand the work that BP was doing to restore the Gulf of Mexico and sharing resources and places where people affected could get help – seldom appeared in the media coverage.  It was abundant on BP’s website, in the advertising that BP bought, in their social media outreach efforts, and in their public relations statements.  Thus, the greatest failure from BP’s leaders wasn’t the mistakes and the gaffes, it was failing to recover from them; failing to show those who cared what BP was doing, and failing to effectively manage their media relations across the US and UK among conservative, liberal, and ‘non-political’ sources of news.

Lesson 3: Prepare for public slaughter.  In the face of accidents and transgressions where lives and/or the environment are seriously affected, leaders must be prepared for personal scrutiny and a public image slaughter.  Hayward’s worst gaffe, “I’d like my life back” is ironic not because it was an innocent but insensitive statement, but because public figures are subject to unique and typically harsh scrutiny.  Leaders will always be held responsible for the organization’s actions and while leaders may not always get the credit when things go well, when things don’t, they are quickly blamed and often fall on the sword for their organization. This is why in the face of major crises, we typically see corporate leaders leaving the company (or in Hayward’s case, literally shipped to Siberia) because with new leadership, the company is able to look towards the future.  Fair or not, leaders must prepare for this possibility and then just do their job.

Whether intentional or not, once Hayward was no longer viable as the CEO for the company BP effectively used him to do the heavy lifting in the crisis – delivering messages that were not popular to both the media and Congress.  Though BP was still negatively evaluated one year after the crisis, I found people did not view the company itself as corrupt nor did they want to actively advocate against BP.  Together with the socially responsible messaging and allowing public ire to be centered on Tony Hayward, it is likely that the messaging and blame on the leader lays the groundwork for improving relationships with consumers and other stakeholders.

A Multi-Leader Model of Crisis Leadership

The general lessons from the BP crisis support much of what we know about good crisis leadership.  Yet, one of the emergent characteristics of BP’s leadership dynamic reveals a better way to manage the challenging and often conflicting roles that leaders must enact during serious crises.  The answer is very simple – different leaders can and should take on different roles in the face of the crisis.  The figure below summarizes the model, but essentially there must be a public face to attach to the company – likely the company CEO – and all leaders will focus messaging broadly on image-oriented restoration; however, from there, roles and responsibilities ought to be divided.


This model affords companies the ability to:

  • Focus on leaders’ knowledge, strengths, and position within the company
  • Directly connect recommended messaging strategies with leadership responsibilities
  • Allow leaders to focus on a limited number of talking points to minimize message complexity and maximize message synchronization with each other and overall PR strategy
  • Separate “problematic” and perhaps conflicting leadership roles and responsibilities
  • In the event of gaffes or problems, likely limits the potential damage from any single mistake and/or directs the leader to a new role
  • Adapt particular messaging goals or leader roles to the organization’s structure, personalities, and emergent issues

Setting Realistic Expectations

Most of the assessments of BP’s crisis communication failures focus on factors that aren’t new, don’t better inform us about how to respond to significant or even cataclysmic crises, and frankly set unrealistic expectations for BP’s reputation recovery after such a large crisis. By over-emphasizing the problems of personality, most critiques fail to recognize the complexity and strength of BP’s overall response to the crisis in the Gulf – especially those elements that are replicable and likely effective.  Certainly, the lessons of BP’s mistakes help to explain why the company’s crisis response had limited success in changing public opinion about the company.  More importantly, they also tell us a lot about setting realistic expectations for short-term reputational recovery after major crises.

By replicating BP’s focus on social responsibility and recovery (and defending the company when necessary); being responsive to issues; employing a synchronized multi-media communication strategy using traditional PR tools, social media, media relations, and advertising; and deploying multiple leaders to manage the crisis I’ve found statistically significant evidence this will:

  • Improve dialogue and interaction between stakeholders and the company
  • Separate evaluations of the ‘transgression’ (i.e., cause of the crisis itself) from global evaluations of the company’s ‘morality’
  • Focus on repairing or building relationships

These may seem like meager gains – especially when we consider these findings were based on public opinion one year after the well was officially killed in the Gulf of Mexico – but by setting realistic and attainable goals, these three ‘short-term’ outcomes lay the foundation for not only image recovery but strengthening the company in the long-term.  Keep in mind, these findings take into account all of BP’s mistakes, miscues, and public relations problems during the crisis.  More importantly, these three outcomes all lead to tangible return on investment because they are all reasons why consumers choose particular brands in a competitive market and ways to improve government and/or media relations.

In the end, transgressions – or crises where the company is judged as doing something wrong – represent the most challenging types of crises for any organization to overcome.  While no organization will recover overnight by applying all of the lessons learned from a crisis that dwarfs most other transgressions, crisis managers can now more effectively choose a response strategy grounded in corporate social responsibility (both in words and actions), apply the multi-leader model of crisis response, and build realistic outcome expectations.




[i]  I would like to recognize my research collaborators – Ms. Jennie Donohue, Professional Lecturer at Marist College, Dr. Augustine Pang, Assistant Professor in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University; David Gurien Senior Writer for CNN International; and Rand Otten, Director of Development for the Putnam County Chapter of the NYSARC, Inc.

[ii]  The study sample included all of BP’s press releases, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and all articles from three US (i.e., Houston Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and Fox News Online) and three UK (i.e., BBC Online, The Sun, and The Guardian) news sources including direct quotations from BP personnel between April 20, 2010 and September 20, 2010.

[iii] The survey had more than 1,500 American respondents primarily from outside of the Gulf coast region.