Tag Archives: case study

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 http://www.wsj.com/articles/plains-all-american-pipeline-employee-face-charges-in-2015-pipeline-spill-1463500212

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!

Critical Thinking Case Study: Is Amazon.com a Jungle?

A recent article in The New York Times exposed harsh working conditions for white-collar employees at global e-retailer Amazon.com. Current and former “Amazonians” called the company’s pace relentless and said they were encouraged to tear apart coworkers’ ideas in meetings. Likewise, they told of approved systems to sabotage colleagues and working long and late hours—all to service standards the company itself labels “unreasonably high.”

The article quoted one employee who said it was commonplace to see workers crumbled at their desks in tears. Another said the yearly purge of management “losers” kept employees in a constant state of high pressure Amazon owner Jeff Bezos expected.amazon

The article noted that those who are successful are rewarded with Amazon stock options that can make them wealthy. However, others who are unlucky enough to have a personal problem such as cancer or a miscarriage are pushed out.

Amazon’s grueling pace has been in the news before, especially about its fulfillment centers, where blue-collar workers have complained of Dickensian working conditions. It has been reported that the physical work there is compounded by the non-stop stress of being monitored for productivity.

These complaints from both white- and blue-collar workers come from a company ethos that is dedicated to the consumer; in fact, Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles lists its No. 1 goal as “customer obsession.” Leaders “work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust.”

In response to The New York Times article, Jeff Bezos said he did not recognize the company the reporter described, and other employees have come forward to praise the corporate culture in which workers are “dedicated and excited to go the extra mile.” Likewise, Bezos says he doesn’t tolerate “callous management practices” and claims that he himself would not work at Amazon if the conditions were as bad as the article depicts.
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Classroom Exercise

In teams, discuss the following questions. You can read the article from The New York Times and the rebuttal written by an 18-month Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu at the links below.

New York Times Article
Rebuttal to New York Times Article

  1. What do you think about a corporate culture that encourages employees to put the customer before all else? Would you like working in such conditions?
  1. The white-collar workers hired at Amazon are aware of its work ethos. Do you think they should complain about their employer? Why or why not?
  1. How do you feel about making purchases through Amazon.com in light of the claims being made about its harsh working conditions?