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20 years

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill's Battle of the Sound Bites and Science

We previously blogged on the BP analogy about trying to place a cap on the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Several BP spokespersons stated that placing the cap was akin to performing open heart surgery in 5,000 feet of water.

This week, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA), countered with his own analogy. He stated that BPs oil drilling exploration approach was like an auto company spending billions to make a car that could go 200 miles an hour but investing a fraction of that in upgrading the brakes and the airbags http://n.pr/90efpI.

As communicators we generally like analogies. They can help translate complicated subjects into laymen's language. The risk in a crisis situation is that they can unintentionally trivialize a situation, or deflect the search for causes and solutions.

One of the poorest crisis analogies in memory occurred during the Exxon Valdez spill and clean up. An Exxon-Mobil spokesperson tried to put the events in perspective and suggested that the amount spilled in Prudhoe Bay was equivalent to an eye dropper full in a bath tub. While this analogy might have been accurate, it was not "credible" in view of the pictures of seals and birds covered with oil. Rather than minimize the potential for damage in the public's eye, it exacerbated the impression that Exxon was insensitive and out-of-touch.

The analogy of the open heart surgery through 5,000 feet might have worked if the initial effort to cap the well had worked. It did communicate that this was a difficult and complex project, but it fell short when the effort wasn’t successful. If it had worked, the analogy would have made BP look technically adept - at least they would have been slightly better perceived as trying to fix their problem. When it failed, it made BP look like it couldn’t solve the problem. Markey's analogy showed that they didn’t have the safety part of the drilling equation. This was a balance for the media but would have been even better if it was in the press or delivered as BP, Transocean and Halliburton were perceived as dodging most of the questions at a Congressional hearing.

Messaging in the middle of a crisis situation is a delicate task that can be a double-edged sword- particularly when all the facts aren’t known. Coming up with the right analogy or explanation is hard work and requires its own risk-benefit assessment. What do you think of the dueling analogies?

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