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Fifthring

Crisis PR analysis: After the Shell oil spill the wash up begins

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By The Drum Team, Editorial

August 19, 2011 | 6 min read

Shell is currently following in the recent footsteps of BP and firefighting its own oil spill at sea. Phil Allan from Fifth Ring, offers some advice on how the company should manage the crisis to protect its own image.

Another spill, another multinational oil giant left wriggling on the hook of public opprobrium.

One of the sentiments expressed among ER observers in the UK following Macondo was that “it wouldn’t happen here”. This wasn’t complacency that spills and leaks would not occur in the North Sea, but more an assumption that robust emergency response planning and well-drilled teams would have had quickly learned the lessons and would deal with it. Well, guess what?

If Gannet Alpha has proved anything, it is that exercising scenarios and how to respond to a crisis is one thing, but a “live incident” cruelly exposes a flawed response plan. BP and Shell have been faced with real-life examples of what all of us who work in the energy industry train and plan for. Both companies have done a lot of things right, but the lasting impression is that both have been found wanting and out of step with public expectation.

Scottish Environment minister Richard Lochhead confirms the expectation of Government, media and the public when he said on Wednesday that people will accept nothing less than "complete openness and transparency" on the spill. He’s right.

Looking back at BP’s response to Macondo with the benefit of some hindsight, it didn’t do anything that wrong: it apologised quickly and took responsibility for the cleanup. Representatives were on the whole assertive and contrite: “The gulf oil spill is a tragedy that never should have happened; “We take full responsibility for the clean up”; “We are committed to making this right”. Tony Hayward saying he wanted to get his life back, somewhat undermined his team’s best efforts.

Shell is experiencing what BP went through – a credibility gap. Shell said it was unable to estimate how much oil was in the pipeline, before stating that 660 tonnes was left at a press conference in Aberdeen on Wednesday. It may have been better to say it was working to establish just how much oil was still down there.

Taking a couple of days for the story to break is another issue – established ER practice suggests that holding statements are issued only in response to media inquiries, but maybe that also has to change as Shell has been seen to be at best, latchy, or deliberately trying to sit on bad news.

Fifth Ring is employed as consultants by energy companies to provide a media response in the hours after an incident. Our advice is simple: provide consistent, accurate and regular updates and ensure an information vacuum does not occur. Twenty-four hour news, Facebook and the ever-more ubiquitous Twitter allow stakeholders, commentators and experts to opportunity to pose questions and demand answers – if they don’t get them, they will provide their own to fill the void.

At Macondo, media stories about increased discharge estimates were accompanied by speculation that BP was trying to hide the facts. While events have eventually proved that Hayward wasn’t far wrong when he said the spill was “relatively tiny” and the impact was going to be “very, very modest”, the perception was that he was attempting to minimise damage and play down the incident.

Shell meanwhile, in what is already the biggest spill for 10 years have been using the full ER lexicon: “significantly reduced leak”, “residual small leak”, “stemmed the flow”. Facts may back up its assertions, but the story is as fluid as the “rainbow sheen” on surface of the sea and the negative headlines are proving harder to dispel than the oil.

So what can be done?

• Tell don’t spin. Spokespeople must be factually accurate and refrain from commentary. Stay focussed on the details of the response effort

• Get help from the statutory bodies. DECC and Scottish Government could and should be consulted and urged to take a greater role in a joint information process. The public needs to understand there is a highly- trained experienced team working to put things right

• Once the story is up and running at top of the news agenda – organise daily news briefing with up-to-date progress reports. Consider putting up a senior engineer as part of the team, who can give technical information that people will trust. Shell putting technical director Glen Cayley forward was a sensible move

• Accept there is likely be a “rush to judgement” in the media and prepare a swift and robust response to inaccurate reporting

• Never say nothing - nature and the media hates a vacuum. Speculation, comment and vested interests will gleefully fill the void created by your company’s silence. Be proactive and anticipate the worst-case scenario

• Identify the stakeholders and work out what to say to each audience by anticipating what their particular concerns are going to be. How your company reacts in a crisis will speak far louder than adverts featuring fluffy clouds and baby pandas wrapped in a corporate flag

• Accept your punishment: if there have been failings it is better to face these, deal with them, ensure lessons are learned and move forward. Be open, work with the authorities and the media and move forward.

• Train, train and train again: we exercise with our major clients on a monthly basis – and we work together to introduce realistic scenarios that allow a “story arc”. In a major incident it’s going to be executives making the decisions and taking the lead – they have to have the correct training. A media consultant has to be part of any incident team. Independent specialists can offer objective advice broach the difficult questions and help formulate answers.

• Get the web working for you: direct the media and public to a dedicated site that is activated when an incident occurs – press statements, fast facts, photographs and video should be made available. Online and social media offer direct and immediate communication with the public. Journalists can have accurate, informative copy and will appreciate the company is making efforts to engage.

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