(Katie Durkin) Exactly one year ago today, an explosion occurred on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, just over 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The accident resulted in approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil being dumped into the Gulf over the course of three months as BP struggled to stop the leak. The disaster is the largest accidental oil spill in history.
The spill is an interesting and continuing case study for communication professionals. BP took a major hit to its public image and financial stability throughout the firestorm of negative press and environmental activists’ protests during the prolonged crisis. The public was particularly infuriated by the company’s CEO Tony Hayward’s lack of engagement and sincere concern for those affected by the disaster. At the end of last May, he said on the Today Show, “There is no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” Hayward’s continuous dismissal of the public’s concern on behalf of BP resulted in distrust of the company’s ability to effectively handle the situation. Again in June, the media attacked Hayward when he was photographed attending a leisurely sailing event and then failed to participate in the World National Oil Companies Congress. Hayward’s repeated public relations missteps led to his replacement in July.
During the crisis, BP’s stock fell dramatically but has since recovered. The company reported fourth quarter profits 30% above those from the prior year. The crisis is naturally comparable to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in which the Exxon’s reputation was severely tarnished, while it remained financially strong. Improving BP’s reputation are its continued clean-up efforts and the several billion dollars it has distributed to business affected by the disaster.
A year later, the full scope environmental effects of the spill are still unknown. Scientists believe it could be many years before all the repercussions of the disaster are understood. At this point, researchers predict a low probability of continuing devastating consequences on the Gulf’s ecosystem. However, last year’s disaster must still be reflected upon and learned from by oil industry leaders, policy-makers, and crisis communication practitioners alike.