The cluster crisis

The cluster crisis is when a series of two or more errors collectively make matters worse. When Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig operated by BP, exploded in 2010, matters were bad enough. The spill inflicted 4.9 million barrels of oil on the Gulf of Mexico coast, making it the biggest accidental oil spill in history. 11 people were killed.

But it was turned into a cluster crisis by a global chief executive who did not understand crisis communications. As Fraser Seitel, the doyen of American corporate communicators, says: “How did they do in cleaning up the Gulf? The answer: they did terrifically. They cleaned up the gulf. They immediately said that they would pay for the clean up and they’d ask questions later – perfect. But how is BP remembered? It’s remembered as handling the Gulf crisis in a miserable manner. Why? Because BP’s CEO… Tony Hayward didn’t stick to the script.”

Mr Seitel points to three main off-script blunders. Firstly, Mr Hayward said that “we expect this to be of minimal damage”. He predicted something that was just wrong.

Secondly, in a newspaper interview, Mr Hayward seemed to accuse America of being a country where illegitimate lawsuits happened relentlessly: “This is America – come on. We’re going to have lots of illegitimate claims. We all know that.” Now, this may be true, but it wasn’t an ideal thing for a British CEO to be saying – and led to the accusation, by one television pundit, that Hayward was “beyond snooty”.

Finally, Mr Hayward, in front of a television camera, made an off-script remark that: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” It might have seemed like an innocent enough remark – indeed, he was expressing something most people in his position would feel. But the second sentence, frequently quoted alone, caused outrage.

The popular political website ThinkProgress accused Mr Hayward of being “upset at the inconvenience caused to him by his company’s devastation of the Gulf of Mexico.” A cartoonist at The Guardian newspaper drew an oil-damaged bird lying on a beech, saying: “I’d like my life back.” And the White House’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said: “There’s 11 people that we’d all like to have their lives back that were killed the very first night of this incident. And the harm that’s being done there will take years to fix.” Mr Hayward’s comments were, in short, a PR disaster.

As, indeed, was Mr Hayward’s decision to disappear off one weekend to go sailing around the Isle of Wight in a high-profile race – described by the White House as being part of a “long line of PR gaffes and mistakes”.

Now this is all pretty sad. Despite the commonly held view among the public, BP was actually extremely hard-working at fixing the oil spill. But perception is everything – and that’s why it’s my view that 80 per cent of dealing with a crisis effectively in this era of social media and 24/7 news is communications. In the BP case, a horrible-enough crisis was turned into a cluster crisis by the words of a geoscientist and oil explorer turned CEO, who lacked the training to communicate effectively in a crisis.