oil spill

How NOT to deal with a crisis: lessons from an oil spill


I recently wrote a post about the basics of crisis management. In it, I noted:

"The reality is that organizational seniority of the spokesperson typically reflects how much attention the company is paying to the issue. In a fairly significant crisis, with a stock-price impact, your CEO likely would be the one to respond, at least to the top-tier media outlets in your industry covering the story."

With that in mind, it was surprising to see a report that Husky Energy - one of Canada's largest integrated energy companies - has decided to start exclusively using email to communicate with the media in the aftermath of a Saskatchewan oil spill which threatens community drinking water and has attracted national media coverage.

I agree with much of what fellow crisis expert Barry McLoughlin says in the CBC News piece linked above. Even when there is little new information available in a crisis, and when the narrative is not fully in your control, an appropriate company spokesperson - not a key message in an email - should be available to media. And with an issue of this magnitude, a senior leader should be the one answering media questions, rather than someone in the communications department.

By resorting to email alone, companies dehumanize their response and ensure they're perceived as monolithic entities without a human face. As Barry notes in his comments to the CBC, it's much harder to trust a faceless key message than a human being.

I'm betting Husky's rationale is that written messages and timelines, surely vetted word-by-word by the legal department, will be more effective with the media than what its spokespeople have been able to achieve to date. I've written about this approach too. Sometimes it works, but most often it does not.

I believe in the post mortem of this issue, questions will be raised about Husky's decision to rely on email instead of presenting a well-informed, readily available and transparent leader as the face of its public response.