The story about thousands of vehicles stalled by rogue fuel is an interesting one for public relations practitioners in terms of crisis management – since no-one seems to know whose crisis it is, yet a lot of different parties are involved.
Tesco (whose forecourts have been the main imagery used) and Morrisons supermarkets have been mainly implicated (with mention of Sainsbury and Asda too) – as has independent oil company Greenergy. But none of these organisations have a statement or advice on their websites.
Neither does Trading Standards whose offices in many areas of the country are investigating claims of contaminated fuel.
This story seems to have emerged slowly – the Sun reported it yesterday afternoon, but the problem seems to have been around for over a week.
The lack of “ownership” and issues management means there is no clear communication to anyone who is currently a latent or aware public – motorists don’t know if they are affected or if they should take action.
There is no advice on the website of the Petrol Retailers Association but it is quoted in the media as recommending motorists to change the petrol in their tanks. However, the RAC (which similarly has no advice on its website) is quoted as warning drivers not to do this themselves for fear of damaging their engines – and environmentally, petrol needs to be disposed of carefully. Besides, if you don’t know the source of the problem, can you be confident in the replacement petrol?
It seems the breakdown organisations, garages and car manufacturers have noted a trend in incidents and orders for oxygen sensors – but they are bystanders in the crisis at this stage. Manufacturers and independent garages will undoubtedly be drawn in when it comes to costs of repairs.
Hurrah to the SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders) which does have the same advice on its site as media quotes that recommend motorists to note their mileage and keep fuel receipts, and if affected to contact their car dealer or the manufacturer’s customer service department for technical advice and Trading Standards for legal advice.
The UK Petroleum Industry Association has a statement on its website claiming the problem is nothing to do with its members’ UK refineries.
In a crisis where no-one is able to take control, the media hunt around for experts who are prepared to speculate on causes. Hence an engineering “expert” from the University of Aberdeen is seen as worthy of suggesting possible causes.
We also have the issue of “false” reporting with the BBC claiming to have received reports from 2,000 motorists including outside the south-east where the problem first emerged, and even reports relating to diesel-engined cars.
Again, when no-one can give factual information, a form of “hypochondria” seems to take hold with every minor car problem being linked to the “hot issue”.
Rumours also take hold and with online opportunities to share their stories, a mythology seems to be spreading as tales get told.
I have no ideas where this one is going – I suppose until there is some clear evidence to go on or incidents start to decline, the media can keep it spinning for a little while. But will there be a peak of panic as linear crisis models propose or is this going to fade away with no clear cause established?