Statoil and BP reflect on the tragic attack on their Algerian operations in 2013

One year on, Andrew Cave reflects on the communication challenge faced by Statoil and BP in Algeria

In January 2013, a group of oil workers boarded a bus outside the living area of the Tigantourine gas plant west of In Amenas in the Algerian desert.

Some were going to the airport, others to renew their documents in town. Minutes later, they found themselves in the middle of one of the largest ever terrorist attacks against an oil and gas plant.

First attacking the bus and then the plant's living and production areas, 32 heavily-armed terrorists were able to take control of the site within 15 minutes.

Nearly 800 people were on site, with many of them taken hostage in a siege that lasted four days and ended with a major explosion and fire and the deaths of 40 innocent people from ten countries as well as 29 of the attackers.

With 130 foreign workers from 29 nations involved, global media attention was enormous as governments and the companies concerned launched emergency efforts to come to the aid of the victims.

One year on, the tragic effects of the incident are still reverberating well beyond In Amenas, which was operated as a joint venture between BP, Norway's Statoil and the Algerian national oil company Sonatrach.

In September 2013, Statoil, which lost five employees in the attack, published an 82-page report into what happened and what the company could do to improve security and future 'emergency preparedness'.

The inquest into the deaths of the six British victims began last month, while criminal investigations are under way in several jurisdictions. Japan, the USA, the Philippines, Malaysia, Romania, Colombia, France and Algeria all lost citizens in the tragedy.

One year on, these events and other attacks in Kenya and elsewhere, serve to focus attention once again on the unenviable task that communicators have in such crises, dispensing and withholding information, managing relationships with media and liaising with the families of victims.

Potential lessons

While these are human tragedies involving real personal loss, they are also major tests of the brand integrity, ethical and moral compass and overall corporate and social responsibility of the organisations affected. So can any lessons be learned from the communications of the In Amenas tragedy?

Statoil's report, which concluded that neither it nor BP could have prevented the attack, gives some idea of the scope and scale of the issues.

It points out that the contract area was about the size of Luxembourg, and that, with no news organisations or journalists at the scene, eyewitness accounts 'competed with terrorist propaganda, rumours and speculation' to provide conflicting information about what was going on.

The company's first press release about the siege, issued at 12.16pm on 16 January, less than seven hours after it began, stated only that it had been notified about a 'serious situation involving an attack' on the production facility.

It disclosed that it had 20 employees, including ten Norwegians, on site and said it would provide more information when it was available.

Over the next six days, Statoil hosted nine press conferences and organised town hall meetings, including one attended by Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's prime minister at the time.

The company says it responded 'almost continuously' to media requests in Norway and across the world. The attacks generated 9,000 articles in Norwegian media alone.

Statoil's information and communications leader Knut Rostad says: 'Before Algerian armed forces had retained control over the facility and before we had confirmed knowledge about our missing colleagues, it was important to only communicate information that had been confirmed. It was also crucial to share all confirmed information with the next of kin before we went public, to ensure consistency in messaging, and to repeat the key messages and give regular updates on Statoil.com and to media, even if there had been few developments since the previous update.

Don't forget internal audience

'We gave priority to coordinating all communication internally with the leader of the emergency response team and externally with our partners and other relevant stakeholders. Regular updates were given to employees internally.'

At BP, press relations manager Robert Wine adds: 'Between 16 and 19 January last year there was basically a war going on and access was obviously very difficult. It was difficult to get information and to send it out.

'This was a siege and a terrorist attack. As information came in, it was obviously passed to everyone it was possible to get in touch with.

'There was no distinction made as people were escaping between those people working for us and those employed by others there. Everything possible was done to keep track of people and families were contacted as soon as possible.'

Wine states that, in contrast with Statoil, the company's response to the attacks has needed to co-ordinate not only with police investigations but also with preparations for the British inquests.

He says: 'Of course we have great sympathy for what the families are going through, but we can't say much until the inquest has been held. The process in Norway is different. There is no inquest system. That's why they have done things differently. It's very difficult for us to come up with all the information. Everyone wants to know what happened but we have to abide by the process.

'As for lessons to be learned, they primarily relate to the security that was in place in the desert and that is out of our hands operationally. Vans full of terrorists were driven across the desert through a highly militarised area, apparently unnoticed. There is a lot that still needs to be known about that and we are working closely with the authorities. We understand that they need to deal with it from a national security point of view.'

Experts in kidnap and siege situations say the In Amenas attack illustrates increasing risks of such incidents and point out that it is not just companies in traditionally dangerous industries such as oil, gas and mining that might be exposed to them.

Kidnapping becoming an issue

While the 2013 terrorism and political violence map compiled by insurance broking group Aon only gives its 'severe' risk classification to countries in Africa and the Middle East, the nature of the ongoing 'war on terror' and the increasingly global nature of business means that kidnap and siege risks are now much more prevalent worldwide.

One kidnap communications specialist says: 'What communicators in the West have to bear in mind in dealing with these situations is just how different the mindset is of people in other civilisations.

'The cost of life and the value that people attach to it is completely different so communicating there is often a challenge because you're working off completely different bases.

'If someone believes that by dint of just being in their country you're part of an illegitimate, invading force that has no right to be operating in their country, nothing you can do in your communications will be able to overcome that objection.

'How you communicate in a siege situation will depend on what the siege is about. If it involves hostages and prisoner transfer, then there's a potential bargain to be made but if it's just a protest about Western companies and that's the end of it, you either get a stalemate or they start killing people.

'In the Westgate shopping centre siege in Nairobi, the terrorists were doing it to make a point. The point was that if you attack our country, we'll come and attack yours. There wasn't much of a negotiated settlement you could get to. These people will fight to the death and I think we're just going to see more of it.'

The expert adds that BP may have been disadvantaged in Algeria because it is widely regarded there as having been closely identified with the former Gaddafi regime in Libya.

He also believes that the company's task of communicating the In Amenas siege was made more difficult by the site being in joint venture, with other parties involved.

However, he adds: 'I'm not sure how BP could necessarily have handled the communications of In Amenas any better.

'Firstly, they weren't really in control of it. They had to rely on the host country. Secondly, they did whatever they could to support the families and in terms of giving a live commentary on what's happening, that's very, very difficult and often the very last thing you should be doing.'

Andrew Griffin, chief executive of crisis and reputation management consultancy Regester Larkin, which supported an oil and gas company in Algeria during the In Amenas attack, says kidnap and siege situations are so sensitive that organisations affected often ask for a news black-out.

Company responses may be therefore be more internally-focused and this is also important because of the signals it sends to other staff.

'Employees around the world will be looking at the company's response to see how it treats its people in times of stress,' he says. 'Does it do everything possible to keep them safe? Do its actions demonstrate that it really values life over profits? Does it treat affected family members well?'

At BP, meanwhile, Wine is not so sure whether any communications lessons can be learned from the handling of In Amenas.

'This is not a communications exercise,' he states. 'It's about 40 people being killed and terrorised by armed terrorists.

'It's not about communications. It's a terribly violent murder of 40 innocent workers. We're not having an inquiry into the communications of it. This was a much more serious issue that affected lots of peoples' lives. This was murder.'