Is Latest Oil Rig Crisis Another PR Disaster?

by coach on September 4, 2010

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The Saturday, Sept 4th Los Angeles Times story Oil platform fire is a disaster mainly for PR really ticked me off. How is this latest oil rig fire a “PR”  disaster?

Another operations failure by an oil rig operator is not, by itself, a public relations disaster as the LA Times claims. The problem lies more in the industry’s poor operating and safety record, combined with several terrible environmental disasters, notably Exxon Valdez and BP.

I wrote about the expectations for crisis PR earlier in a June 30th post Is PR a Cure-all in Every Major Crisis?

The operator with this latest oil rig fire is Houston-based Mariner Energy Inc. Fortunately, this incident had only localized platform damage and no injury, loss of life or environmental impact to date.

But let’s look at how Mariner has done managing the crisis so far:

Prepared in advance with a crisis plan?
Unclear. Responded with basic holding statement through two news releases. Availability of spokesperson seems adequate so far but other response seems questionable as noted below.

Website?
No acknowledgement of the fire on its home page as of Sat, Sept 4th. Two news releases buried on its Investor Information page.

No 24-hour media telephone or email contacts were provided on its website. Just corporate, HR and IR telephone numbers. No newsroom, photos, video or other useful media materials were available either.

News releases?
Two brief releases issued first day of incident with minimal info and some shortcomings. Nothing subsequent as of Saturday, Sept 4th.

Mariner Energy Confirms a Fire at a Production Platform on Vermilion Block 380 in the Gulf of Mexico; All Crew Members Safely Accounted for – Initial Sept 2 news release confirms basic situation though “boilerplate” info is longer than its holding statement of facts.

Mariner Energy Reports Fire Extinguished at Vermilion Platform – Sept 2 follow up news release reconfirms basics and its cooperation with authorities.

The news releases did not provide media contact info, nor a direct quote by company executives or spokespeople.

Quick response?
Yes. Out with initial statements of fact by news release but buried on its website.

Incident positioning?
Adequate. Confirms facts. But initially, Mariner officials do not express deep concern or regret in its own statements and the lack of an “official” CEO or executive quote or statement is baffling.

Adequacy of overall response so far?
Here’s where they may not have been effective. Given the mood on Capitol Hill, environmental activism and the level of public fear and concern, Mariner’s response appears minimal and may be perceived as not caring enough by some important stakeholders. In a word, it’s response so far is underwhelming. They have a long way to go next week as things begin to heat up.

Past safety record?
More than a dozen safety incidents in the past four years included platform fires, environmental spills and a blowout according to US officials.  Certainly Mariner is not regarded as the worst in the industry say some experts in A Deeper Look at Mariner Energy, Owner of Oil Rig That Caught on Fire.

Profile and industry stand?
Not so positive on investigation of the former Enron-owned company. Mariner, BP and others in the industry opposed a proposed federal rule last year requiring offshore oil and gas operators to have new safety systems aimed at reducing worker mistakes.

That regulation has not yet been enacted according to an AP Exclusive: “Mariner opposed proposed a new federal safety rule.”

Next steps?
With growing public concern and White House sensitivity, new safety procedures may be coming soon from the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Environmental groups are lobbying for a moratorium, investors are watching closely but consumers continue to fill up their gas guzzlers with abandon.

Has Mariner Energy’s crisis response met the test? It seems lacking so far. Only time will tell but Mariner has much work to do in covering the basics, especially in the days of scrutiny ahead.

Yes, in some respects, another oil rig incident so soon after BP’s disaster creates a “PR” problem for the oil industry. But the industry needs to work on its safety and environmental records.

The PR “problem” will come later when or if it’s shown that oil rig operators and the industry have not taken steps to increase safety, reduce environmental impact and communicate to the public and regulators that they have done so.

In the meantime, we’ll be watching closely to see how Mariner Energy handles its own crisis PR.

What’s your view on Mariner Energy’s response so far? Is it following crisis PR best practices? Do you trust the industry? We welcome your comments below.

UPDATE November 10, 2011

Mariner Energy was acquired by Apache Corporation on November 10, 2010. The links to Mariner’s financials are no longer active but the lessons are all still relevant and worth watching for other oil and gas companies.

Photo Credit: vphill

See ABC news video of Mariner Energy rig fire

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