On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Operated by Transocean under contract for British Petroleum for the Macondo Prospect, the explosion claimed eleven lives. The subsequent sinking of the drilling rig resulted in the discharge of over 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf, causing extreme environmental damage to the marine ecological system, as well as affecting millions of wildlife habitats along the coast. Additionally, fishing and tourism industries were affected, and human health problems were reported. The incident subsequently became known as the largest marine oil spill since the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989.
Media and Public Perception in the Wake of the Spill
While media outlets initially picked up on the direct casualties of the explosion, attention quickly turned to the insurmountable environmental, economic and health consequences caused by the oil spill. Although Transocean owned the oilrig, it was contracted to British Petroleum, which quickly came under fire due to its history of bypassing safety measures and violating environmental laws. British Petroleum’s reputation took a huge hit, and it’s stock fell by 52% in 50 days. A month after the incident, British Petroleum marked a US$60 billion loss in value.
The story dominated traditional news media such as newspapers and television for months, with most news outlets covering the story from an economic standpoint, focusing on the overall estimated cost of the oil spill for the company as well as restoration costs. Additionally, news outlets picked up on other indirect consequences of the oil spill, such as the environmental and health effects on the Gulf inhabitants. Finally, news outlets placed the blame on British Petroleum, citing previous safety and environmental violations. As a result of the media framing and perspective, overall public perception was overwhelmingly negative. In a poll conducted by the Washington Post-ABC News in June 2010, an overwhelmingly large number of Americans surveyed (81%) viewed British Petroleum and the handling of the event negatively. Additionally, 75% of those polled considered the spill a major environmental disaster.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill posed a severe reputational crisis for British Petroleum. In the immediate months following the incident, British Petroleum launched an intensive series of public relations efforts to restore their international image and reputation.
These public relations and crisis management efforts seem to have paid off. A global public opinion poll by GlobeScan’s Radar in 2012 found that British Petroleum emerged as one of the top five firms considered to be environmentally responsible. Analysts suggested that British Petroleum’s crisis response and management in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill could have allowed the company to restore its image and recover public favour just 2 years after the incident.