Crisis Communication Requires 'Common Sense'

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Patrick Kinney of Gaffney Bennet Public Relations talks to Lynn Neary about BP's public response to the Gulf oil spill. Kinney worked for Ogilvy Public Relations when it helped BP rebrand itself as "Beyond Petroleum." BP's early response to the oil spill fell short of what experts suggest be done early in a crisis.


While BP attempts to plug the leak in the Gulf of Mexico, it's also trying to repair its image. After the spill, BP hired public relations giant Brunswick Group to manage its message. For an analysis of BP's public response so far, we reached Patrick Kinney of Gaffney Bennett Public Relations. A decade ago, Kinney helped BP rebrand itself as Beyond Petroleum.

Good morning. Good to have you with us, Patrick.

Mr. PATRICK KINNEY (Gaffney Bennett Public Relations): Good morning, Lynn. Nice to be here.

NEARY: Let me ask you: Right after the spill, BP right away insisted that it wasn't at fault, but then later on said that it would take full responsibility for the accident. So why would BP make such a big change in its message right off the top?

Mr. KINNEY: Well, you know, they say that there's three phases to crisis communications, and that's, you know, being prepared and how you handle it and the recovery. And I just - it feels to me like they weren't prepared, which is somewhat astonishing, but I think that when events are escalating and the flow of information is coming at them, I just feel like, it seems to me like it was a strategy dominated by lawyers that immediately wanted them not to cause any liability problems and not to take a full responsibility.

NEARY: Something's that's been sort of building in the last week or so - or the last few days, anyway - is this idea of how big this spill really is. And BP has said, well, we're focusing all our energy on containing the spill and that measuring the outflow isn't a priority. But it seems to me that's something people really do want to know.

Mr. KINNEY: I agree with you. I think it's just, you know, a lot of crisis communications should be governed by common sense. And the first thing on people's mind is, how much oil is spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico? And so you need to either give us an estimate, a number, or tell us why you can't.

NEARY: So they should do that now - even if they sort of haven't done it up 'til now, you would say they should do it now?

Mr. KINNEY: Yes. They need to communicate the facts as they know them, when they know them. I think they need to do it frequently. I think they have gotten better in their response to this. I don't think they ever thought it would be going on for a month. But I do think, with daily updates, video updates on their website, what they've been doing on Twitter, on Facebook, you know, it seems like they are trying to fill that communications void, and I think that's a good thing.

I think they've really improved their communications efforts, but they refer to the first 48 hours after a crisis incident as, you know, the golden hour. And what you do then sort of sets the stage for, you know, how it's going to play out from that. I don't know if they can recover from how bad they did in that first 48 hours. But I do think that they are doing better now by giving frequent updates, giving the facts as they know them.

NEARY: Now, BP CEO Tony Hayward has really been the public face of the company during this disaster, and he's come under a lot of fire for a statement he made, that - he said the amount of oil spewing is tiny in comparison to the amount of water in the gulf. And I don't think he's backed off that statement either, and he's taken a lot of heat for that. Could he be in danger of losing his job?

Mr. KINNEY: Definitely. I mean, when we've advised clients in different types of crisis situations, we'll go back and research similar crisis situations. And oftentimes, you're working for the CEO and you will say, you know, out of the last dozen times that a crisis like this has occurred, you know, 11 out of the 12 CEOs have been fired. And that's never an easy message to give, but I would be more surprised if Tony Hayward didn't lose his job through his performance in this crisis.

NEARY: Patrick Kinney is a partner at Gaffney Bennett Public Relations. Thanks so much, Patrick.

Mr. KINNEY: Thank you, Lynn.

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