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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.  

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Comments

  1. Emerson P.

    The other thing that BP will need to do once it contains the spill is to replace its CEO. He will be forever linked to the crisis, as will all the executives who’ve been interviewed about it. It BP survives as a company and a brand, it will need a new management team. Perhaps they should bring back John Browne! His problems seem small by comparison.

  2. Dorothy Crenshaw

    Yes, that’s the risk of having the CEO as media spokesperson – and of a poor job. But, in this case it’s unavoidable. I doubt even a media-savvy media executive could survive this kind of situation. Look at what happened to JetBlue’s Neeleman after his apology tour.

  3. Gracie

    The other thing that BP will need to do once it contains the spill is to replace its CEO. He will be forever linked to the crisis, as will all the executives who’ve been interviewed about it. It BP survives as a company and a brand, it will need a new management team. Perhaps they should bring back John Browne! His problems seem small by comparison.

  4. Newton Mastella

    This whole disaster with BP is out of control. The measure of spewing into the Gulf of Mexico rose by thousands of barrels Wednesday after an underwater robot apparently shook the containment cap that has been catching petroleum from BP’s Macondo well. I wonder how much destruction this entire catastrophe is going to cost the gulf when it’s all over and done with

  5. Brooklyn

    This whole disaster with BP is out of control. The measure of spewing into the Gulf of Mexico rose by thousands of barrels Wednesday after an underwater robot apparently shook the containment cap that has been catching petroleum from BP’s Macondo well. I wonder how much destruction this entire catastrophe is going to cost the gulf when it’s all over and done with

  6. sunsfan

    The oil spill is nothing to laugh at but I just saw a kid wearing a t-shirt that cracked me up. BP – We’re bring oil to America’s shores. I died laughing because BP’s billion dollar image change to their new sunflower logo is forever going to be associated with the worst environmental disaster to strike America. Check out the shirt here – http://bit.ly/bJAuTb

  7. Helaine Taverner

    This ecological disaster has an impact reaching every corner of the globe. I was reading an article the other day on how these types of oil spills happen all over africa and parts of aribia but are just not covered by the media. There have been 3 worse spills this year unfortuantly this one just happens to be in plain sight.

    Phil
    navy seal fitness workout

  8. Britni Carrahan

    This domain appears to recieve a great deal of visitors. How do you promote it? It gives a nice unique spin on things. I guess having something useful or substantial to give info on is the most important thing.

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