Déjà Vu All Over Again
If you’re wondering what might by happening inside the minds of BP employees right now, let me give you an insight by quoting an April 18, 1989 memo from then Exxon Chairman Lawrence G. Rawl to all employees.
Rawl’s letter goes on to say, “Our company has had a history of excellence in its worldwide operations including caring for the environment—a record of which we have all been justly proud. The Exxon Valdez incident is an aberration and our commitment to excellence is as strong as ever.” If it seems like déjà vu, it is.To Exxon Employees:
The Exxon Valdez incident had caused us all considerable distress and concern. I want to assure you that Exxon has done everything possible from the moment we were notified of the spill to respond fully. As you know, we have successfully removed a million barrels of oil from the tanker, and the ship has been moved so that repairs can be made. Now our most important task is to get the oil cleaned up. All necessary internal and external resources are being concentrated on that task.
Some of you have seen press and other criticism that Exxon management had not handled the spill properly. That is not true. On the day of the incident, Frank Iarossi, president of Exxon Shipping Company, was on the scene. Some days later, Bill Stevens, president of Exxon Company, U.S.A., was in Alaska and reporting events directly to New York. Recently, we assigned Otto Harrison to Valdez from Australia to head our cleanup efforts. We have worked with some eighteen fishermen, tourism, Alaska native, local, state, and federal government groups in the preparation of a cleanup plan which calls for its completion by mid-September; this plan has now been approved by the Commandant of the Coast Guard. I thought that my presence in Alaska in those early days would divert attention from the vital immediate tasks so I did not go at that time. Lee Raymond recently returned from Alaska, and I’ve also made a survey trip to Valdez and Prince William Sound.
While there are enormous differences between what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico and the now, rather puny, 1989 spill in Alaska from the Exxon Valdez, the 24/7 pattern of blistering media coverage, public official participation and condemnations, failed boycotts, and the relentless media and anti-industry activist “over-sensationalizing” are very much a parallel.
In Valdez, there were no tourists to inform and warn. In the Gulf, the mindless, overreaching, explosive, and blurring news coverage destroyed the tourist industries of four or more states, five weeks before a drop of oil arrived on a beach or in a marsh.
As we watch BP attempt to limit media access and coverage to various aspects of the Company’s response, it’s evident that management has yet to make any progress in understanding the public interest in these events, and the media’s relentless need and desire to cover them.
In Alaska, the very early news conferences were staged in Valdez. Exxon management’s thinking was that the location was too remote and too difficult to reach for many media to come and observe. It turns out that so many media came that the U.S. Army had to set up temporary air traffic control at the Valdez airport. Air traffic at Valdez jumped from four flights per day to 400 flights per day.
Later, the news conferences were moved to Houston and other places in the United States for the opposite reason. Exxon believed that the media would have to leave Valdez to attend the news conferences at these distant locations. Instead, huge numbers of new reporters were assigned to cover the story in Houston and other briefing points, while maintaining a significant number of reporters providing continuous coverage from Valdez, Alaska.
Most other details are radically different—ranging from the BP’s response (which has been pretty much total and global) to the President of the United States’ response (who, for some reason beyond imagining, is personally trying to destroy BP). If President Obama is successful, he will truly own the entire problem. The U.S. government response has been truly massive, and will get bigger.
Two of my favorite crisis axioms are always at work, now, during the BP spill and during the Exxon Valdez spill: “All crises ripen badly” and “If you think it’s bad now, wait five minutes, it’s bound to get worse before it gets better.”