Crisis Management Case Study: BP Oil Spill

As public relations students, we learn different crisis management strategies. We are taught accountability and forward public honesty to correct critical actions.


Learning what not to do in a crisis is as important as learning what to do. One of the best case studies of bad crisis management is BP’s actions after the April 20, 2010 oil spill off the coast of Texas. A deadly mixture of natural gas, mud, oil and concrete exploded from approximately 5,000 feet below sea level onto the deck of an oilrig stationed in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. Due to a malfunction, the well was unable to be sealed for three months causing the equivalent of 5,000 barrels of crude oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico each day. It was deemed the worst oil spill in American history.


BP’s immediate response was to defect blame by sending out a news release placing the blame on the owner of the oil rig, Transocean.  BP did not apologize and had little success sending out clear messages through the media and their executives. Reports indicated that BP had ordered its employees not to talk to media. These efforts tainted BP’s usually trustworthy public image.


The public used creative tactics to voice their negativity toward BP. There were fake BP Twitter handles that gained more followers than the real one. Greenpeace had a campaign to rebrand BP, stating that their crisp green sun logo didn’t accurately depict the company’s values. These, and many more examples, deeply influenced BP’s strategy going forward.


BP then created three key messages:

  • They accept full responsibility for the spill
  • They are deeply concerned for the harm that been caused and the commitment to rebuilding the local economies and environment
  • They are working to enact safety measures, and ethic environmental responsibility into all aspects of the company


They used different social media strategies, expanding beyond Twitter by purchasing search engine keywords to ensure people were seeing their message.


Watching BP’s reaction reiterates the importance of a company being transparent during crisis management.


–Elizabeth McCarthy

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