The British Petroleum Oil Spill at the Gulf of Mexico


BP Oil Spill at the Gulf of Mexico is described as one of the most tragic accidents in the history of oil mining. The tragedy occurred during an oil exploration mission in the Deep Water Horizon by the company. By that time, the offshore rig was owned by the British Petroleum Company. Eleven employees of the company died while others were severely injured. The spill spread for several months. Numerous efforts were made to prevent the spill from extending to other parts of the ocean. Preventive measures were applied to stop the oil from reaching the shores of Alabama and Texas.

Timeline of the BP Oil Spill

The timeline of the oil spill can be traced from April to the year 2010. The crisis took many months with an estimation of 1.68 million gallons spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill took 87 days before it was contained. The effects of the hydrocarbons are said to have been felt for weeks after the oil spill. The hydrocarbons continued burning for thirty-six hours. The spill had a substantial effect on tourism. According to the company, the spill was caused by high pressure in the oil reservoir.

There are notable effects of the BP Oil Spill which affected its stakeholders. One hundred million dollars were used to pay claims of the affected people. To meet the obligations arising out of the spill, BP created a twenty billion-dollar fund. The company formed the Gulf Coast Restoration Organisation which was vital in managing all issues emanating from the spill. The situation was restored in September 2010. The company maintained its stakeholders by promising to create an audit division with powers to oversee the company’s operations. Several impacts are attributed to the Gulf Oil Spill. Primary and secondary environmental effects were felt by people in the region. The leakage of hydrocarbons in the sea caused the death of aquatic animals. Economically, the oil spill was a substantial loss to the BP Company. The company incurred expenses while trying to seal and stop the oil leakage. The company could not retain its CEO after the crisis. Tony Hayward, the Company’s chief executive officer at the time of the spill was replaced. The CEO was replaced since his messages were considered to be evasive. McKay Lamar Accepted the company’s responsibility but stated that the crisis was due to the failure of many processes.

Pictures of the crisis were taken and posted on social media. A substantial number of social media users shared the pictures. This adversely affected the company’s reputation. The Facebook messages have been ignored since they were similar to those posted on Twitter. This section will analyze the response of BP during the time of crisis. This will be achieved by discussing situational and communication theory by Timothy Coombs. The theory will be used to establish how effective the company was in responding to the crisis.

Situational and Communication Crisis Theory and its application to the BP Oil Spill

Timothy Coombs is a renowned author of crisis communication. His literature has been used by many companies and government agencies in dealing with crises. He is the brain behind the Situational Crisis Communication Theory. This theory has been a helpful tool in analyzing BP’s case. Coombs asserts that the failure of any organization to offer the appropriate communication during a crisis is revisited on its reputation. According to Coombs, when a crisis occurs the organization must respond quickly. He emphasizes the fact that the failure of an organization to respond quickly makes it appear incompetent. The Deny Option response is a situation whereby the company responds by confronting the people who are attributing responsibility to the company. The company forms a strong defense against all allegations of negligent acts. In the BP oil spill case, the company used Denial Posture. It denied the existence of any malicious intent to cause harm. The company claimed that the events that occurred were beyond its control.

An organization must maintain consistency in its response. Consistency does not mean having one speaker, but it means coordinating the message to be official when it’s being released to the public. During the crisis, there should be a team to facilitate consistency. A consistent message will be believed by the public. Consistency gives the message substantial credibility. The SCCT strategy is based on averting the public ineffectual perception during the time of crisis. In addition, the theory states that the organization’s response should change the perceptions of the public about the crisis. There are three factors applied in SCCT analyses. They include the crisis type, the crisis history, and the prior reputation. The mentioned factors are subsequently applied in a two-step process. It could either be in Denial Response or Rebuilding Posture.

BP used content analyses during the crisis. The method is not concerned with the delivery of the message. Its main concern is the process of communication and its effects. Content analyses enabled the organization to examine corporate crisis messages received by the public through social media.

The company is said to have used approximately one thousand tweets and press releases to respond to the crisis. When the crisis aggravated, the United States’ agencies joined BP in a unified response mission. The messages disclosed the Denial Posture. The company downplayed the effects of the crisis.

The most frequently used crisis communication method had been the Denial Posture. Scapegoating was dominant from the start of the crisis. The CEO of BP tried to blame other companies when the crisis occurred. Results from the media, clearly indicated that the Denial Posture played a dominant role during the crisis. The Company also used the Rebuilding Posture. Tony Hayward made a public apology to the victims of the crisis. The company was forced to use a substantial amount of money to compensate the victims of the crisis. The frequently used speaker during the crisis was Tony Hayward, the CEO of the BP company. The company later changed the spokesperson. The CEO was left in charge of other company’s businesses. The former CEO is said to have downplayed the effects of the crisis.

There were notable message differences among the speakers. Tony Hayward’s message conflicted with that of McKay Lemar. Tony Hayward stated, “This accident was brought about by several processes” (Walaski, 2011, p. 28). McKay said, “We will not rest until the well is under control” (Walaski, 2011, p. 28). The two speakers had varying messages to the public. Hayward’s message was shifting liability while McKay’s message gave the affected groups hope. This led to the replacement of Hayward.

The role of media in the crisis response

The BP oil spill received coverage from social and traditional media. To understand the communication mechanisms used by BP, it is vital to analyze the press releases, video messages through YouTube and Facebook updates. A clear understanding of the said media communication aids the interpretation of the crisis. The CEO of BP published an article in June which pointed out that the company was not liable.

The role of media in the BP Oil crisis cannot be underestimated. Pictures circulated in the media a few minutes after the spill. They caused the company to respond swiftly through its Twitter account, press releases, YouTube, Facebook, and website posting. It sought the help of the United States government agencies. Environmental activists and other volunteers got a chance to air their concerns about the spill. However, social media aggravated the crisis. The presence of pictures in the media exaggerated the crisis within a short period hence forcing the company to respond immediately.


It is worth stating that the message strategies used by BP during the crisis were effectively applied. The company maintained consistency during the time of crisis. It used Denial Posture and Rebuilding Posture through traditional and social media response. The use of the said strategies minimized the impact and the scope of the crisis. According to Coombs, the SCCT model can be used to protect an organization’s reputation. The company’s response in the media was not well coordinated. The company should have learned a lesson from the 1999 Coca-Cola crisis. The crisis occurred when a rumor circulated in the local dailies indicating that Dasani was tap water. The article maintained that the water did not go through any purification procedure. In addition, it was discovered that the said product was contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. The company admitted the fault and offered a public apology. Subsequently, Coca-Cola withdrew the said bottles in circulation. It further ordered a stop to the product launch in other countries. The company maintained all the channels of communication open. BP should have borrowed a leaf from the Coca-Cola crisis.

Reference List

Walaski, P 2011, Risk and Crisis Communications : Methods and Messages, Web.

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