A reportedly flawed oil spill response plan apparently isn’t the only BP strategy that has come up short in the weeks following the April 20 explosion. 

 The company has also drawn criticism from communications professionals and others its fractured public response, highlighted (or, in this case, lowlighted) when CEO Tony Hayward spoiled his expression of personal remorse by adding, “I’d like my life back.” 

What it will take for BP to restore its image is no more certain than the timeframe for repairing the spill’s environmental damage. But the company’s public perception problem offers a cautionary tale for design and construction firms should they someday find themselves in the eye of a disaster-related media storm. 

Certainly, there’s only so much that can and should be said after an incident involving a building or infrastructure system until the facts are in. But publicity-shy companies that routinely cocoon themselves from the media citing  “company policy” or referring queries to clients won’t get off so easily when a disaster or emergency turns their world upside-down.   

As BP is learning the hard way, a organization that comes off as anything less than forthcoming with information will always fight a losing battle for the hearts and minds of the public, despite its best efforts to the contrary.   

Looking to a client for media cover may not always be the best tactic either, as that organization may lack the PR wherewithal to fashion a credible response. And the last thing a budget-emaciated public affairs operation at a DOT or other public agency needs when struggling to effectively manage its own message is having to worry about someone else’s. 

Incidents such as the 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis or the spate of crane incidents in New York City are thankfully rare. But it doesn’t mean that they can’t happen, even to a design team that produced a technically perfect design or a contractor with an impeccable safety and inspection record.  

Rather than crossing its institutional fingers or worrying about a response when the times come, design and construction firms of all sizes should think about how they’d respond to the public if “the worst” happened, and craft guidelines to respond accordingly.  

Those firms with crisis communications plans should likewise take a fresh look to ensure that the response addresses the dynamics of online media and information sources, which differ greatly from “traditional” print and broadcast outlets.  

Media consultant and former CBS News reporter David Henderson notes how the spate of largely critical oil spill stories dominates search engine results for BP and its drilling contractor, Transoceanic. And anyone interested in reliving Hayward’s gaffe today or 10 years from now will need only to dial up one of several YouTube videos. 

Time does tend to heal all wounds. But the Internet never forgets.