With some suggesting BP could ultimately collapse under the weight of the multiple lawsuits headed its way, survival will depend a great deal on how the oil company is seen to handle the crisis. While the accident exposed flaws in the company's risk management, BP's response will test its PR team to the full.
The case for the prosecution is clear enough. Any future litigation will likely focus on the oil company's appalling safety record. But how much BP will owe in damages is unwritten. If the company can show contrition through the seriousness of its response, the courts will at least be inclined to focus more on facts than on the level of public hysteria.
BP chief executive Tony Haywood has already made the best PR decision available to him. Crowdsourcing a potential solution to the problem, a strategy that has already elicited over 30,000 ideas, is a public relations masterstroke on multiple levels. First, it shows that the oil company is ready to explore almost any route in its attempt to clean up the mess. It projects a willing, can-do attitude: an image the stricken company will need to hang on to.
Second, it demonstrates a degree of openness. At best, an inclination to collaborate can be used to combat the perception of secrecy—the potentially damaging impression that the public isn't being told the full story. Finally, it suggests, albeit subtly, that the company is in some way disconnected from the root cause of the problem. While BP can still score image points in outwardly claiming full responsibility, the fact that it has sought assistance from outside the company is a strategy of disassociation: it suggests that the leak was an occurrence so freakish that the only solution is as yet unknown.
The risk to BP's—and Haywood's—reputation is that ignorance is always a shaky foundation on which to mount a defence. If BP didn't fully assess the risks, it should never have commenced drilling in the first place. That said, the best outcome Haywood can hope for is leniency. Public perception remains crucial.