Incorporating Ethics in Disaster Communication Strategy: The Case of the U.S. Government in Deepwater Horizon

J. Suzanne Horsley, The University of Alabama
Amber L. Hutchins, Kennesaw State University


BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 was a major test of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which the United States federal government mandates for response to all disasters. At the time, this disaster was perhaps the greatest event in scope and duration under NIMS disaster management guidelines since they were revised in 2008 (the third edition was published in 2017). Ten years later, NIMS provides procedures for operating a joint information center (JIC), but still offers no guidelines for ethical communication. This case study examines the ethical implications of 178 news releases distributed by the Deepwater Horizon Incident JIC. Qualitative analysis found that communication was conducted in an open, ethical manner, with few exceptions. Conflicts emerged, however, that may have compromised ethical standards. The authors conclude with recommendations to inform ethical decision making by JIC communicators.