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Communication expert discusses BP’s “what if” game

Terry Hemeyer, a senior lecturer in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations in the College of Communication, discusses his perspective on BP’s crisis communication.

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Terry Hemeyer


Terry Hemeyer, senior lecturer in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, sat down with Pierpont senior account executive and alumna Brittney Cochran (PR ’07) to discuss Hemeyer’s perspective on BP’s crisis communication. Hemeyer, who serves as executive counsel to communication firm Pierpont, is the former head of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compliance and environmental safety and health for a major oil company. He’s also a member of the College of Communication advisory council. This article originally appeared in the Pierpont Knowledge Center.

The BP Gulf oil spill is a crisis of epic proportion — where did they go wrong?
The BP oil gusher was, without question, a devastating event, and one that we will remember for years to come. However, BP’s problems didn’t start two months ago with the explosion off the Louisiana coast — they originated years before. The first commandment of good crisis management is understanding your internal strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and that is something the company botched. When working in the oil and gas industry, safety concerns are always a vulnerability.

If safety is a vulnerability, how was the explosion, and subsequent spill, able to happen?
BP fell into one of the most dangerous traps any company could — that of complacency. For more than 50 years, the company has been drilling offshore wells without a major issue, possibly causing workers to lower vigilance. BP’s CEO admitted firsthand that this is the first time they’ve had to deal with an offshore problem of this nature, forcing the company to try previously untested solutions in such extreme environmental conditions. Having a “worse-case-scenario” crisis response plan is one of the most valuable communications tools a company of any nature could have, and in this case, BP was almost completely unprepared for what it would face. The fact is, offshore exploration and drilling technology is light years ahead of offshore disaster recovery technology — that vulnerability is an issue for any offshore company.

In a way, you could say BP is falling on the sword for the entire oil and gas industry. I doubt any of today’s oil companies could handle a disaster recovery crisis of this proportion. However, an acute focus on safety and avoidance of complacency could prevent this disaster from happening again. In this instance, I believe complacency will cost BP billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of reputation damage, on top of the devastating environmental effects.

If this could happen to any oil company, should we shift our focus from safe offshore operations to alternate energy sources, such as solar, wind and coal?
This is always the consumer, environmentalist and sometimes government’s knee-jerk reaction to any incident in the oil and gas industry, but it is definitely not the answer — at least not any time soon. Sure, everyone is upset about the damage caused to our natural resources and lives lost — and rightfully so — but a halt on this critical industry will never be the answer, at least not any time soon. Until science develops a cost-effective way to implement greener, more efficient energy alternatives, we have no choice but to use “big oil.” Right now, the cost of producing alternative fuels is many times greater than that of hydrocarbons, and that cost difference would be passed directly to consumers.

So what should BP focus on?
The first priority right now is to fix the problem — cap the leak and aggressively launch a cleanup program. After several failed attempts to seal the well, it seems some progress is being made, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the coming days and weeks. One thing is certain: BP is working hard and utilizing every resource — internal, external and even federal — to stop the oil from gushing into the Gulf.

Right now, everyone — politicians, the media and consumers — needs to stop wasting time looking for the guilty and focus on solving the problem at hand. There will be plenty of time to discover the exact cause of the incident and take action against those responsible, but with each passing day the fallout from the spill becomes more and more damaging to the environment, the consumer mindset and the company itself. Also, it is not time to change or remove operators on site — the suggestion to fire BP and bring in the government for cleanup and damage control is ridiculous. The company is already using every resource available — other offshore operators, experienced contractors, the U.S. Coast Guard and more — it’s just going to take time. Think of it as a complex puzzle — it will take time to see the big picture.

How will this spill affect the oil industry as a whole?
The oil industry can never attain a positive image in the public eye — it has been negative ever since Spindletop, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. However, like the IRS, the oil industry has come to be seen as a “necessary evil” — people do realize the cost effective goods and services, as well as the plethora of jobs it provides.

Oil companies need to adopt the highest level of transparency and competency among all industries in the world, and they must work long and hard to gain the trust of the people. It won’t be easy, and it may never happen completely, but progress is the name of the game. It will be interesting to watch the ongoing cleanup efforts and communications programs around the BP oil spill. The effects of this crisis will do much to shape the company’s future.