BP Crisis Communication – Lines Litigators Like

By Matt Eventoff

BP, after a late start getting out of the “damage control gate”, developed a fairly effective central message:

“We are a responsible party.  Our obligation is to deal with the spill, clean it up and make sure the impacts of that spill are compensated. And we are going to do that.”BP America CEO Lamar McKay May 11, 2010

However, a number of comments that followed were decidedly off-message.  There will be myriad lawsuits filed in this case, and litigators are not going to have to wait for discovery to start developing story lines around key quotes.

One has to wonder what a juror will think after being exposed to these quotes from, or attributed to, CEO Tony Hayward :

What the hell did we do to deserve this?” [New York Times, 4/30/10]

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” [Guardian, 5/14/10]

“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.” [Sky News, 5/18/10]

“We’re sorry for the massive disruption its caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” – CNN, 5/30/10

(collected by ThinkProgress.org)

Come on, this is America, of there will be frivolous lawsuits —   Shep Smith, Fox News, had pretty powerful comments about this one.

Referring to the 9 cleanup workers who have been hospitalized:

BP CEO Hayward told CNN that the sick workers, who blamed their nausea, headaches and chest pain on the oil cleanup at the beach at Grand Isle, probably got sick from food poisoning.

“I’m sure they were genuinely ill, but whether it was anything to do with dispersants and oil, whether it was food poisoning or some other reason for them being ill,” Hayward said. “You know, food poisoning is clearly a big issue when you have a concentration of this number of people in temporary camps, temporary accommodation. It’s something we have to be very, very mindful of. It’s one of the big issues of keeping the army operating. You know, armies march on their stomachs.

I am an advocate of the CEO being front and center when a crisis strikes; that is why CEO’s need to be media trained and have crisis communication plans drawn up prior to being in the line of fire.

What you say can and will be used against you in court and the court of public opinion.  Jurors are individuals, and members of the public. Hence, comments that can be interpreted as callous by the public can be interpreted as callous by a juror.  Jurors will determine what claims are legitimate.

What you say and how you say it matters. Case closed.

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