24th December 2015
This month is the 10th anniversary of the fire at the Buncefield Oil Terminal near London. The explosion that started the fire was the largest in peacetime Europe, measured 2.4 on the Richter scale and could be heard as far away as The Netherlands. Thankfully, no-one was killed as the incident took place early on a Sunday morning and so the busy industrial estate opposite the site was almost deserted.
The terminal was majority-owned and operated by Total, with Chevron owning a minority stake. I was part of the Chevron in-house team that managed the communications in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and helped to protect the company’s reputation during the official investigation and legal cases that followed.
Media and local community
In the first three days after the incident, we had 350 media enquiries and a considerable volume of calls from people and businesses in the local community that had been affected.
Understandably, the local press were mainly interested in the impact on the surrounding community whilst the national press focussed on the M1 being closed and potential supply shortages. The forecourt, commercial fuels and aviation trade press covered the short and long-term supply implications, insurance journalists wanted to know who we were insured with, the legal publications asked us who was providing litigation support, and the business pages and newswires looked at the financial costs of the incident.
We also had media enquiries from around the world where Chevron had other facilities, asking what we were doing to make sure that this didn’t happen in their community.
Satellite image showing the smoke cloud caused by the fire
Recognising that key to managing the incident well would be timely, aligned and accurate responses, within hours of the explosion, the two in-house communications teams at Total and Chevron took a number of joint steps:
1. We enlisted staff from a PR agency to provide additional support for the joint venture to deal with the volume of calls.
2. We established a short sign-off procedure involving a UK business leader, lawyer and communicator for each company. This meant we were able to deal with enquiries quickly – which would have been difficult if we had needed approval from our US head office eight time zones away.
3. We appointed a knowledgeable site manager as media spokesperson as we recognised the importance of a having a real person representing the joint venture at the terminal during the incident.
Are we being reasonable?
Whilst the lawyers made sure that any official communications were appropriate from a legal perspective, as communications practitioners, we ensured that how the companies responded considered the needs of the people who were asking or were affected i.e. making sure that what we said was reasonable.
For example, it took a number of years before the official investigation determined who was responsible for the incident. However, the two companies that owned the terminal made a decision, without admitting liability, to support the local community financially, both in the immediate aftermath of the incident and in the rebuilding process, rather than wait for the investigation to be completed. I think this was the reasonable thing to do.
Official investigation and legal proceedings
Providing the information, access and support that the official investigators needed to do their jobs certainly helped to demonstrate that we also wanted to find out what had happened and to try and learn from it. I think this was one of the reasons why the official investigators sent us their findings prior to them being released to the public and this meant that we were able to have our spokesperson, agreed response and updated reactive Q&As in place by the time the media started to call.
I’m proud of the fact that although Chevron and Total were in dispute about responsibility for the incident, the communications teams continued to maintain a good working relationship throughout.
One thing that I learned from Buncefield was the importance of building long-term relationships with key stakeholders at a time when you don’t need them.
As Chevron was only a minority shareholder in the facility, we left our joint venture partner to build and manage the site community relations. As such, Chevron didn’t have the relationships with the local community or MP before the incident and it was much harder to build these after the incident took place.
The learning is – if you have some responsibility for an asset, time invested in local stakeholder management is always worthwhile and can pay real dividends if something goes wrong.
Daniel Schraibman was a Senior Communications Adviser at Chevron and is now a director of communications, coaching and business consultancy firm, Serekinti.