Wall Street Journal Crisis of the Week: Plains All American Tries to Contain Reputation After Spill

Schwartz Media Strategies CEO Tadd Schwartz shares with the Wall Street Journal his crisis communication plan for Plains All American after the company was indicted by a grand jury.  



Plains All American Pipeline LP gets the crisis treatment this week after the company and one of its workers were indicted by a grand juryin California on criminal charges related to a May 2015 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara that spilled around 3,000 barrels of oil. The company was charged with 46 counts, including a felony charge of releasing hazardous materials into state waters, and faces up to $2.8 million in fines.

Plains issued a statement after the indictment, expressing disappointment with the decision to pursue criminal charges, saying it will vigorously defend itself in court. It said it regrets the accidental spill, and said it’s been working tirelessly to clean up affected areas, compensate those who were affected and work with various groups responding to the spill. Federal regulators said the company made “preventable errors” that led to the spill.  

Using only what the company said, the experts break down how well it is doing in telling its side of the story. Is it excelling in any way with its message or how it’s being delivered? How is it coming up short in its response? What does it do next?


Tadd Schwartz, President and CEO of Schwartz Media Strategies: “A thoughtful crisis plan must be in lockstep with a company’s legal strategy, so it’s understandable that Plains All American Pipeline is exercising caution by adhering to a prepared statement. However, given that California’s attorney general, [Kamala Harris], may use this issue as a platform in her U.S. Senate campaign, the company would be wise to begin shaping the narrative proactively.

“It can begin by raising the public profile of its executives locally and nationally, making sure their messaging stays within the confines of the statement. At the same time, Plains All American should enlist third-party surrogates from within the energy industry and beyond who can substantiate the company’s commitment to the environment and support for clean-up efforts to date. Most importantly, Plains All American should be publicly emphasizing the steps it will take to prevent future oil spills, including improving its infrastructure and supporting environmental and engineering research.”

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