Case Study in Crisis Communication—The Santa Barbara Oil Spill

[Instructors: You can download this exercise here.
An earlier version of the file was corrected.]

Following an oil spill in March 2015 caused by a ruptured pipeline, Plains All American Pipeline was indicted on criminal charges for releasing almost 3,000 barrels of crude oil onto pristine beaches and into the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, California. As The Wall Street Journal reported, the company was indicted on 46 criminal charges, including felony violations for hazardous releases into state waters. But Plains also faces charges for how it reported the spill to state authorities.  Federal charges are also pending.

shutterstock_90532210California officials criticized Plains for taking too long to shut down the leaky pipeline and causing delays before reporting the leak to state and federal officials. According to regulators, the Houston-based pipeline giant faces almost $3 million in fines. The company’s own estimates suggest that Plains may have to pay $269 million in clean-up costs, claim settlements, fines, and legal expenses to resolve the accident.

Soon after the events of May 19, 2015, the Plains CEO, Greg L. Armstrong, sent a message of apology to the residents in the Santa Barbara area. This message offers a rich opportunity for analysis in the business communication classroom.

This case study can be used in various ways, and we hope you will be able to adapt it for use in your classroom. You can download the original message, critical-thinking questions, and two versions of the CEO’s message with annotations to show after the in-class discussion.

Sider, A. (2016, May 17). Plains All American Pipeline, employee face charges in 2015 oil spill. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Possible Classroom Applications: Case Study in Crisis Communication

  1. Display or read to students the brief case scenario to introduce the Santa Barbara oil spill of 2015 caused by Plains All American Pipeline.
  1. Display or distribute the original message from Plains All American Pipeline to the public in the area affected by the oil spill. Give students enough time to read the message of apology. Depending on their experience or business communication savvy, students may need more or less guidance to analyze the message. Either use the critical-thinking / discussion questions provided with this case study for a guided approach, or collect spontaneous responses from the class first. You may want to jot down keywords on the board or onscreen in the classroom.
  1. For a close reading, invite students to highlight or point out words and phrases that indicate regret and apology. Once the class has pointed out the explicit expressions, show them the marked-up message provided with this case study. Students often show a great sensitivity for tone but may not be able to distill the style elements that create a specific tone.
  1. If the class discussion is not free-wheeling and the students need some prodding, use the discussion questions to stimulate critical thinking.
  1. When you feel that the discussion has yielded enough insight and a deeper grasp of the case, show the class the annotated version of the message or make it available in soft copy on your course-management platform, such as Blackboard, Moodle, or similar course website.

Please share with us how you used the case study in your classroom. We welcome your insights and suggestions!

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