The Worst PR Moves Of 2010

It was a good year for bad moves – when it comes to PR, that is. Here’s our list for 2010’s biggest PR blunders.

BP. Let’s get it out of the way. There’s not much more to say about BP’s response to the flood of bad press after the Gulf oil spill. Its handling of the public reaction showed a lack of preparedness, poor message management, and a tone-deaf take on the public mood. BP will have a stained reputation and serve as a textbook case in bad crisis management for years to come.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Call this one the “runaway reputation.” We’ll never know why the General’s aides let themselves be quoted criticizing the Vice President in what was supposed to be a flattering McChrystal profile in Rolling Stone magazine. Blame the ash cloud, which led to a longer embed by reporter Michael Hastings. Or, chalk it up to the booze reportedly consumed on the bus. Whatever the cause, the sloppy media relations resulted in a lesson for PR pros and a defeat for McChrystal.

Spirit Airlines. 2010 wasn’t a smooth year for Spirit. First, it hit some rough PR weather after announcing it would charge as much as $45 per bag for checked luggage. Not popular with fliers. Then, its response to the needs of stranded passengers after a pilot strike was anything but spirited. Yet, the biggest blunder came with the tasteless ad campaign that poked fun at the Gulf oil spill. Fire the PR pilot. Amazon’s decision to sell a self-published “guide for pedophiles” was a PR nightmare. It initially defended the title on freedom of expression grounds, saying that removing it would amount to “censorship.” Coupled with its seemingly arbitrary de-listing of gay and adult-themed titles back in April, the book brouhaha showed a baffling absence of thoughtful policy around controversial content. (In my view, a private company’s decisions about its inventory is not “censorship.”) Amazon pulled the title the next day in the face of public outrage, but not after the publicity made it a Kindle best-seller. Ugh. Turn the page.

Christine O’Donnell. Was her campaign cursed? The Tea Party favorite probably would have been haunted by her decades-old appearances on late-night TV no matter what her communications plan. But, her frequent mistakes showed a lack of preparedness, and her attempt to put the whammy on the witchcraft jokes backfired in a big way. Plus, O’Donnell remains under federal investigation for misuse of campaign funds. Scary.

China and the empty chair. By trying to mount a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government shot itself in the foot. Though he remained in his prison cell in China, Liu’s presence dominated the entire ceremony as though he were there in person. The empty chair in Oslo spoke louder than any PR offensive the Chinese could have mounted.

The Transportation Security Administration. Pity the TSA. Its new screening protocol flew right into a perfect storm of public concern over privacy and government regulation, and a slow news weekend. Though it responded to grassroots outrage with savvy use of social media, it failed to get out in front of the story. TSA messaging was heavy on factoids, yet short on empathy. Even Captain “Sully” Sullenberger bashed the patdowns as, um, heavy-handed. A stronger education campaign, including an influencer outreach, in advance of the holiday might have helped.

Lebron James. This guy’s on everyone’s list. His move to Miami was one thing. But the truly bad “Decision” here was to drag out the announcement in an egocentric and overhyped hourlong ESPN television special. The melodrama played badly with fans, and the relentless focus on James (rather than the team), left him poised for a fall.

Have We Been Fair To Tony Hayward?

There’s an expression related to PR that I particularly dislike. It’s “optics,” and like most buzzwords, it’s a bit pretentious and unnecessary. But when I heard that Tony Hayward will be replaced as CEO of BP, it popped into my head. Good optics, that is. Hayward’s been sent to Siberia (he’ll join a BP joint venture in Russia) while a new guy – a more marketable one, by all appearances – takes the helm.

Not only is Dudley BP’s first American CEO, he was born in Mississippi and spent part of his childhood in the Gulf region. Though he’s lacking a Gulf coast accent (too bad, that), he’s being cast as the anti-Hayward. And not being British does help. A cartoon depicted Hayward being tutored by a PR firm to lose his British accent to better connect with Americans. That ruddy-cheeked English appearance and crisp, yet gaffe-prone speech helped make him the poster child for corporate incompetence and indifference.

But “optics” implies a certain shallowness. It’s about image. Just the PR. Is there a more objective way to look at Hayward?  He claims he’s been “demonized and vilified” by the U.S. media, painting his departure as a necessary sacrifice for the long-term good of the company. He told The Wall Street Journal that he was villainized “for doing the right thing” although what he did right is still a question.

There’s an ocean-sized gap between his image here and in the U.K. People buy him drinks and express sympathy for the way he’s been treated by the whole mess. Moved to tears by a standing ovation during a recent visit to the home office, Hayward seemed a symbol of a departing warrior than a bumbling chief.

So, is the perception gap about geography, or misplaced nationalism? Not really. Hayward was respected internally as a competent executive and the right man to clean up BP’s spotty safety record after John Browne’s tenure. And there was a striking absence of UK investors calling for his ouster. Analysts and stakeholders who studied his performance and questioned him directly over his time as CEO were largely silent. Clearly, he was doing something right before disaster struck.

So, has Hayward been a scapegoat? Of course, but as CEO, he’s has been the top mouthpiece, and symbol, of corporate behavior, or, in this case, misbehavior. When the storm hit, his ability to articulate the way forward was absent. It wasn’t executive performance, the accent, or the pedigree that doomed him. It was a fatal lack of communication skills.

In leaving him in place to absorb the public rancor through the worst of the crisis, like a sponge soaking up toxic mess before a fresh one arrives, BP actually may have limited its downside, both financially and in a PR sense. But, as a (British) fund manager says about Dudley, “he’s not a new broom.”  His timing is pretty good, and his narrative is appropriate, but the problem with BP’s incoming CEO is that he’s really an insider who represents more of the same.

The whole changing of the guard is just that – a rearrangement. BP hasn’t gone nearly far enough to send a message of change. It’s varied the face and the accent behind the PR mess, but that’s about it. Bad PR can bring down a CEO, but its opposite – nice optics – can’t ensure success.  So, until real ecological and workplace reform takes place, it’s a prettier picture, but business as usual.

What PR People Can Learn From BP

Let’s get one thing straight. The Gulf Oil spill isn’t a PR problem. It’s an environmental disaster that no PR team, no matter how skilled, could clean up. The public relations crisis comes with BP’s lack of preparedness for the gusher, and with the communications in its wake. But, all calamities offer learnings. What lessons can we extract from BP’s mishandling of the crisis?

Stick to the script. Actually, have a script. It’s bad enough that BP can’t stem the flow of oil. But it should be able to stop the hemorrhage of insensitive comments from senior management. In my experience, some executives just aren’t good off the cuff, or under extreme stress. Others are simply tone deaf. But, even oratorically gifted officers shouldn’t speak in front of cameras without rigorous preparation. Hayward should be given 4-5 key points to make with the press, with no deviation.

Vet all messages. Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg ‘s reference to the “small people” of the Gulf didn’t strike me as an accident of translation. His comment came during prepared remarks delivered at the White House Rose Garden, not an ad-hoc interview. Both Svanberg’s robotic speech, which the Wall Street Journal likened to Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, and his choice of words, were evidence of not just a clueless crisis response, but a lack of message review. That’s hard to excuse two months after the accident.

Have a go-to guy. For a disaster of the spill’s magnitude, CEO involvement is critical. But, where there’s latitude, CEOs should be used sparingly. It’s also advisable to show executive and technical bench strength. At first, BP actually succeeded on this front by giving Doug Suttles, who’s in charge of exploration and production, a prominent role in interviews on the containment efforts at the accident site. Suttles came across as credible and competent when he stuck to technical progress updates. He didn’t do as well with questions on spill preparation.

Don’t crowsource solutions. Some will argue with me, but I don’t think it was a wise strategic move to open up the problem to suggestions from the public on the BP website. Though the outpouring of ideas provided comic relief  (duct tape, anyone?), the whole thing raised questions about BP’s competence at exactly the wrong time.

Focus on people. University of Kentucky’s Timothy Sellnow points out that, like Exxon before it, BP may have placed too much emphasis on the engineering challenge of containment rather than the human impact. Though the focus was natural, the story became the “solution of the week,” which BP could not control. An equal emphasis on helping the, um, “small people,” would have been better, since that’s something the company can actually do.

Don’t call the game until it’s over. BP has repeatedly predicted success for its efforts to stop the gusher, and it loses credibility with each attempt. Expectations management applies here. Even President Obama’s pledge that the Gulf will be “in better shape than it was” before the spill sounds quixotic right now.

Don’t try to minimize the damage. No one wants to reinforce the negative, but there are ways of expressing remorse and resolve that don’t rub salt in the wound. Reminding us that “it’s a big ocean” isn’t one of them. And, as a rule, where lives – and livelihoods – are lost, it’s impossible to overestimate the pain.

Back up your words with actions. BP seemed to turn a corner when the $20-billion-dollar victims compensation fund was announced. Reparations can be slow and difficult where legal liability is an issue, but an expedited commitment is nearly always in the best interests of everyone involved.

Be part of the solution. If it survives the crisis intact, BP will have a huge opportunity to set new standards for cleanup and recovery. A classic lemons-to-lemonade crisis response is to create best practices to prevent future tragedies, like Tylenol’s packaging initiatives. But that requires leadership, which has been in short supply as the oil, and the missteps, seem to keep on spreading.

Memo To Obama: Don’t Get Mad, Get Going

I used to work with a man who was notoriously calm and self-contained. His demeanor was so low-key that it was easy to parody. I perfected an impersonation of him asking for the sale at a typical new business pitch, just to entertain the staff. I’d stare straight ahead, let all trace of expression leave my face, and utter in a flat, robotic monotone, “We’re passionate about what we do.” It always got a laugh.

It also reminds me of Mr. Obama’s latest PR problem – you know, the “President Spock” syndrome. In the wake of the Gulf Oil accident, the TV talking heads are calling for him to spill — his guts, that is. They’re in a frenzy for the President to spew more emotion, more passion, and a real connection to the crisis.

But, that’s not the real Barack Obama, at least in my view. And, while it’s true that Mr. Obama lacks the cowboy swagger of George Bush or the quick temper of Bill Clinton, anger isn’t the issue. The recent interview with the “Today” Show’s Matt Lauer showed the futility of reacting to the criticism, and of trying to be what you’re not. It’s a classic “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” situation. The President’s measured response to Lauer’s question about whether he should “kick some ass” seemed inauthentic and unsatisfying.

At this point, most Americans are too jaded and disillusioned to find much solace in threats, tantrums, and blame. We’ve had it with apologies and excuses also. It’s time for this most oratorical of leaders to stop talking and display three things: action, authority, and decisiveness. These attributes, I believe, fit him better than anger or frustration. The public lost confidence in BP’s ability to contain the situation weeks ago, and the White House has been tarred with the same brush of ineptitude and indecision. It needs to step in decisively and take charge of the Gulf oil fix before meting out penalties and punishments. Risky? Of course, but not nearly so risky as the current course.

The President needs to stop trying to channel Clint Eastwood and take control of the containment and cleanup process. It’s not about getting mad, it’s about getting going. That would make my day.

Disaster Branding: How BP’s Green PR Backfired

Quick, which company was responsible for the catastrophic natural gas leak in Bhopal, India, the worst industrial accident in modern history? What about the corporation that created the infamous toxic brew known as Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York?

Man-made disasters are usually named, and remembered, for their locations. That won’t be true in the case of the recent Gulf Coast oil spill. Like the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island over 30 years ago, the accident has a complicated set of causes and contributors. But unlike that near-catastrophe, this one bears a big brand name. BP will be forever linked to the Gulf oil rig accident. Ironically, its very efforts to rebrand itself as a progressive, even “green”  company, are part of the reason why.

As BP struggles to contain the oil slick spreading towards the Louisiana coast, it has also tried to spread the responsibility. Its partners, the Transocean Company, the regulatory agency MMS, and the much-maligned Halliburton, are also deeply involved, and Transocean is more directly culpable. But, the spill has tainted the BP brand as well as the Gulf waters. Its market capitalization has already bled $30 billion, and the reputation damage has only just begun.

For years, BP seemed to zig when the industry zagged. It was rebranded ten years ago, literally painting itself green, taking on a sunburst logo, and positioning itself as an energy company, not an oil business. What also stood out was its corporate communications platform, especially its maverick stance on global warming, articulated by former CEO John Browne. Never mind that NGOs referred to it as the “Big Polluter.” By calling on the industry to help reverse climate change, BP earned a reputation as an environmental progressive, at least among its peers.

But, a spotty record in the nineties proved that talking the talk just isn’t enough. Now, nearly three weeks after the oil rig explosion, it’s clear that BP’s eco-friendly branding was, at best, premature. Despite efforts to tighten safety protocols and embrace alternative energy production, its record is far from clean. It’s not alone, but that doesn’t matter.

The recent spill should properly be known as the Transocean Oil Flood. Or the Deepwater Horizon Disaster. But, this one is branded BP, in part because of the size of the gap between the slickly packaged brand image and the noxious reality.

When the gulf between PR and objective fact is this large, the reputation cost is high. But, there are learnings. The New York Times points out that the corporation now considered a paragon of responsibility is the very one most linked with toxic disaster. That’s right, it’s Exxon Mobil, the folks who brought us the Exxon Valdez. Among industry watchers, “Exxon” is actually a gold standard for scrupulous adherence to safety standards.

So, can BP save its brand? Once the oil is contained, and only then, can the reputation cleanup begin. Since it’s stuck with the oil spill label, BP’s best strategy might actually be to follow the Exxon example. Its brand communications challenge will be to make its name synonymous with the fix, not just the disaster. Talking the talk – to the tune of millions in branding, advertising, and PR – is expensive. But, not walking the walk has an even higher price.