*See bottom of post for updates
Earlier this week, an oil pipeline burst on the coast of Santa Barbara, California, resulting in more than 20,000 gallons of crude oil spilling across 9 miles of shoreline. The pipeline belongs to Plains All American Pipeline, L.P., and I have to say that I’m pretty astonished at their lack of crisis communications since the oil spill occurred.
Communication is key for successful crisis management
I realize that sometimes it seems easier to stay silent. And this may have worked in the past, but it is no longer the past. We’re in the 21st century and 21st century stakeholders demand regular communications throughout a crisis. The bottom line is that a lack of communication in a crisis results in:
- The story being told for – and against – you. In order to position your organization as the narrative of your own crisis, you need to communicate and tell your story.
- Broken trust. A lack of communication comes across as unsympathetic, unremorseful and socially irresponsible. This impacts trust in your organization and for an organization such as an energy company, trust can result in the loss of a social license to operate – which inevitably impacts their bottom line.
- Share price drop. Considering that Plains All American Pipeline is a publicly traded company, a negative hit to their reputation can result in a serious dip in their share price.
Considering that the public, activist groups and the media are continually discussing, reporting on and sharing shocking images surrounding this crisis, a lack of response is not the most effective way to go. Even if there’s no new news to report, the organization should have a presence and should be focusing on communicating updates and responding to inquiries, comments and rumors online.
Some comments and takeaways on Plains All American Pipeline’s crisis communications
Plains All American Pipeline did release an initial response to the crisis, which provided people with a link to this website for further updates. At first I thought this was their dark website activated for their crisis communications, but upon further review, I’m not entirely sure. There are logos along the top of the homepage, as well as the title of the homepage, “Refugio Response Information,” that leave me scratching my head. I believe that this is the response website for Refugio State Beach, rather than purely for Plains All American Pipeline. However, if I’m wrong, then the fact that there’s uncertainty is not a good thing. Crisis communications, especially a designated home base, should be clear and concise.
However, through their initial response to this crisis, they prompted people to navigate to this website for current updates regarding the oil spill, so whether it is being hosted by them or a third party, it is still considered, by me, to be their designated crisis communications home base.
Read: Dark Websites as a Crisis Communications Strategy
In order to find this website, I had to do a Google search as, at the time of this post, there is no link to it – or any communications announcing the oil spill – from Plains All American Pipeline’s corporate website. This, would not be my recommendation, for the following reason:
People (from stakeholders, to the general public, to the media) looking to read about the organization’s response to the oil spill will naturally navigate to their corporate website. A lack of any formal announcement, even one that simply guides viewers to their designated home base (the website mentioned above), sends the message that the organization has not responded to the crisis and therefore does not care about it.
As for the website itself, I like how it’s easy to navigate, though it should be mobile friendly. Additionally, I always look for ease of reach. In a crisis, you want your communications to be found and shared, especially if they concern health and/or the environment. Plains All American Pipeline does not have a social media presence, nor are there any easily share-able features incorporated into this crisis communications home base. Easily share-able features can include anything from:
- Designated hashtags for people to follow and monitor
- Links to approved social media accounts to follow
- “Click to tweet” functions
Read: 5 Posts to Help you Manage Twitter in a Crisis
Considering the amount of attention this oil spill is garnering on social media, it’s important to be a part of the conversation and to facilitate the dissemination of your crisis communications.
Here is just a sampling of what a quick search on Twitter regarding the oil spill leads to:
REFUGIO UPDATE: Oil spill slick expanded to approximately 9 miles http://t.co/fI9kzHF7EC Major cleanup underway pic.twitter.com/joJeNcIeNe
— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7) May 20, 2015
Plains All American Pipeline says pipeline that broke near Santa Barbara, Calif., was operating at maximum capacit… http://t.co/vBXTiE6tcw
— SavageNation (@SavageNation) May 20, 2015
Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline."Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred" #NotEnough #Renewables pic.twitter.com/0UXByoUl7x
— Matthew Modine (@MatthewModine) May 20, 2015
#UniteBlue Plains All-American Pipeline Has A Terrible Oil Spill Record http://t.co/OH3lyznfFC pic.twitter.com/NDj6Nl7WGF
— The Progressive Mind (@Libertea2012) May 20, 2015
Plains All-American Pipeline, the company responsible for today's #oilspill in CA, has a history of spills: http://t.co/3DmhH07hL0
— Greenpeace USA (@greenpeaceusa) May 20, 2015
US Oil Pipeline Ruptures; 21,000 Barrel 4-Mile Oil Slick On Santa Barbara Beaches http://t.co/0r3FYOkCJq
— Greenpeace NZ (@GreenpeaceNZ) May 20, 2015
Workers comb beach for injured amimals of #Oilspill near #SantaBarbara none found so far. nbcla https://t.co/Ov7gvP6qoZ
— Jose Hernandez Jr (@josejr67) May 20, 2015
I would like to say that one of the features of this crisis communication home base that I do like, is their prompt to receive updates via email. This is a good way to collect a list and to provide a means of real-time and two-way communication. However, I have yet to see if they’re in fact open to two-way communication, as I sent them an email through this service and await a response. However, even though this function is a great option to include for stakeholders, it’s still important to expand your crisis comms reach through platforms that are currently and already discussing the crisis, as mentioned above.
Quick assessment, more to come
This was meant to be a short and quick post to express some immediate thoughts on Plains All American Pipeline’s initial response to this oil spill crisis in Santa Barbara – and to provide you with takeaway tips for your own crisis preparedness program.
These disasters are always a tragedy as wildlife and the environment suffer the most consequences. Not to mention that this crisis comes just days after the Obama administration gave Shell conditional approval to drill in the Arctic Ocean. This means that this crisis may lead to even more uproar on an already heated and controversial topic.
For now, I hope for Plains All American Pipeline’s sake that this spill is not determined to be due to negligence on their part, and I hope the wild life and environment suffer minimal impact. We’re in the early days of this crisis, so all of this is yet to be seen…
May 20, 2015 at 10:30pm EDT:
Over the last couple of hours, since I published this post, the website referred to in this post as Plains All American Pipeline’s crisis home base has published a number of updates and has also incorporated a Twitter feed into the bottom of their homepage. This Twitter feed is the Santa Barbara County Twitter feed, clearly answering my above question as to who this website is being managed by.
It’s great that Santa Barbara County is taking this proactive initiative for communications throughout this crisis. However, I’m still left wondering where Plains All American Pipeline’s updates and official responses and communications are. Since their initial response (linked to above), I have yet to see any communications from them. It will be interesting to see how this plays out on their reputation in the long-run.
Photo credit: ABC7 Eyewitness News
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.
The oil spill is quite unfortunate. I am truly wondering what the comm team at Plains is thinking about the way and manner they are managing this crisis. Obviously, keeping silent cannot wish the problem away. However, Refugio is doing quite well with necessary information. Overall, quite an insightful write-up from you as always.
Melissa Agnes says
Refugio, indeed, is doing very well. I find it interesting how Plains has pawned the communications and updates part of this crisis management off on Refugio.