Were BP’s Apologies in the Gulf of Mexico Ethical?

In the six years that have passed since the tragic explosion of the BP-owned deep water platform in the Gulf of Mexico, much has been written about the spill, the organization, and BP’s response to it — including a few of my own academic publications. My project, which has involved about 50 Master’s students and colleagues from the US and Singapore, was a project to record and analyze all of BP’s owned media (i.e., website, press releases, Twitter, and Facebook) from the explosion in April to the ‘official’ announcement that the well was permanently capped in September. At this point, I’ve also read most of the post-crisis assessments and critiques and find that most of them are fundamentally biased views where the conclusions and arguments about BP’s response are seem clouded by either dogma or media framing.

So, for my last piece on the company, I wanted to analyze the company’s response from as intellectually neutral as possible because it’s quite a different set of question to ask whether the PR strategy was ethical or whether a host of public stakeholders perceived the response to be ethical. If BP’s ethics problems were a result of their approach and style in their core messaging, then we learn something about BP. However, if BP’s ethics problems were a result of whether people believed the company then that’s a different PR issue and provides a richer and more complex  understanding of how public opinion is influenced — even ‘academics’.

The very simple answer to the question — were BP’s apologies in response to the Gulf of Mexico explosion ethical — is yes, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

If you are interested in the full paper and methodology, I would invite you to read it, but it’s an academic paper and so a bit long and fairly dry with a boat load of statistics and previous literature citations, so I’ll try to boil it down to the most important bits in this post. And no, I have no formal connection to BP — in fact, when I began this project six years ago, I assumed that I would get to academically fillet the company for poor crisis response messaging so imagine my surprise when I discovered their response was generally socially responsible (yes, there’s always the well-publicized gaffes, but those don’t represent the bulk of the crisis response).

How do we evaluate the ethics of crisis response ‘objectively’

Given that several academics and journalists have tried and largely failed in evaluating the ethics of BP’s response, what makes anyone think that I can do a better job? Well, very simply if we establish that ethical content is, then we can assess whether any organization’s response is ethical. Likewise, if you’re a practitioner and wanting to ensure the content of a response is ethical, think of this as a helpful guide.

Let me try to boil the academic literature on ethics and crisis response down to a visual and a brief Summary of the model of ethical apologyexplanation. Most research and thinking about ethics and crises suggests that when organizations respond to a crisis and apologize, there are two critical determinants of whether a response is ethical — whether it is delivered in an appropriate manner and whether the content of the message suggests genuine contrition. This leads people to evaluate the messages themselves as being ethical or not. This is assuming a ‘perfect’ set of conditions where there are no competitive messages that would evaluate how people interpreted and assessed the messages from the organization, but in this case remember we’re interested in what the organization is saying.

Click on the thumbnail to see the full ethical model that I’ve proposed.

How did BP do?

In evaluating all of BP’s press releases, Tweets, and Facebook posts for the duration of the main crisis, BP’s apology-based messaging was people-centered and focused on atonement … that is the company not only apologized but emphasized the spill’s impact on people and the environment. Early in the crisis, BP’s responses also incorporated elements of community building by inviting participation with BP and recognizing their collaborative efforts with the community and other agencies or individuals who could help them address the problem.  As time continued, BP began to focus on its willingness to commit to the challenge (i.e., eliciting sympathy and offering reassurances) of rebuilding the communities and industries affected.

Though BP’s crisis response was largely criticized, it was also praised for effectively using social media.  Yet, in that praise, Steve Marino of Ogilvy and Mather suggested BP was wise to just use social media as a forum for people to vent.  Our analysis suggests that instead of merely being a place for people to vent, BP’s messaging on Facebook and Twitter seemed to emphasize dialogue and real-life collaborations with members of the Gulf Coast community because its posts and tweets emphasized acknowledgment, empathy, and action.

The Content of BP’s Atonement

Taking these findings together, there are five ways that we can describe BP’s messaging as ethical apology.

  1. BP’s messaging emphasized various stakeholders across sources and contexts espousing concern for all of those affected
  2. Its emphasis on collaboration and community building communicates efforts to reintegrate the organization as a part of the community
  3. BP clearly tried to shift some responsibility of the blame – particularly to its operational partners Transocean and Halliburton.  However, these findings suggest that BP separated its efforts to apologize from any shifting of blame; instead when the company apologized, it consistently and explicitly recognized its accountability for the crisis.
  4. By communicating transparency throughout the crisis, BP’s messaging shows evidence of an espoused commitment to correcting the wrong.
  5. BP’s messaging focused on the future as the company made assurances it would make ‘things’ right and be involved in the Gulf for the long-term.

Each of these reflects the core attributes of the content of ethical apology identified above.

The Manner of BP’s Atonement

By taking a step back from the content of the apology to evaluate the manner of the apology, we may better assess the communication of BP’s remorse as well as the factors that might have limited its success in communicating remorse. The context and message timing reveal that BP’s approach to crisis response was to ‘stay the course’, which could damage perceptions that the company was genuinely responsive to the voices, experiences, and contexts of community members. More specifically….

  1. Context.  BP did not strongly tailor its efforts to atone to each of the 12 primary contexts for this crisis; however, it did tailor its response to a particular subset in this crisis demonstrating some sensitivity to the nuances of the situation. In contexts where BP was responding to criticism, discussions about their leadership, and bad public relations where the company’s practices were directly confronted, BP emphasized compassion for those affected, apology, and offering assurances about their role in correcting the crisis. We believe that while BP’s messages demonstrated contrition and focused on correcting wrongs, the manner of the apology may explain why its apology was not viewed as sincere in many evaluations of its crisis response.
  2. Time.  These data suggest the structure and messaging surrounding BP’s apology-based messaging changed across the five-month crisis.  These data indicate shifts in atonement messaging shifted with major events within the crisis supporting a conclusion that BP communicated remorse in its response to the crisis.  However, that remorse may not have been convincing.

Transferable Lessons Learned

  • Apologizing too much early without empathy may make the apology less credible. Certainly, without ‘knowing’ BP’s intentions, we cannot and should not assume sincerity (or lack thereof); however, BP was very quick to apologize and apologized so often that it was certainly picked up in popular culture….
  • Defensive strategies — even when viewed as ‘necessary’ or ‘appropriate’ by the organization may well weaken how believable the apology is perceived. This is a calculated risk for organizations.
  • Responsible communication assessment needs to separate the substance of an organization’s response to crisis from perceptions of the response. Of course how the messages are perceived is the most important in practice; however, this isn’t helpful to the practitioner trying to understand why an apology may not be effective.
  • Thinking long term for crisis recovery is critical. So, was BP’s use of apology ethical? From the content and manner, it was. However, I think the biggest lesson learned is that doing the ‘right’ thing is no guarantee of short term reputation repair. That doesn’t mean that an organization in a crisis shouldn’t be socially responsible, but they have to be prepared for the long-term challenges — particularly in the case of very public crises.
  • The power of the media — traditional and non-traditional influencers — is transformative. There are few crises that receive the sustained and critical coverage that the 2010 Gulf spill did; however, the case very clearly demonstrates the importance of media relations. BP produced all the ‘right’ messages and seemingly tried to do the right things; however, they very clearly failed to persuade key influencers in traditional media outlets as well as alternative or social media outlets because the company’s message was not well-received. This does not suggest a giant media conspiracy, but it does suggest that we’re in an era of cynicism and when companies threaten peoples’ lives or livelihoods, they face an uphill battle to be believable.

I know that grabbing headlines, trending, and being newsworthy for critics, journalists, and even well-intentioned rivals is a reality in today’s continuous news cycle; however, it’s not useful to commend nor condemn organizations based on popular assessments of crisis response. It doesn’t help the academic produce quality pieces of research that informs theory. It doesn’t help the practitioner to develop a credible, socially responsible, and effective response strategy. Even in the editorial process for this particular piece, one academic reviewer and I had a lively debate about whether it mattered to evaluate the message absent popular interpretations. Ultimately, I argue that it is for the aforementioned reasons, but that’s certainly  a question worthy of debate.