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Bp'S Pr Lessons

Public opinion is like the ocean. It surrounds us. We can swim in it and prosper, or we can fight it and drown. BP and its CEO Tony Hayward are drowning.


Public opinion is like the ocean. It surrounds us. We can swim in it and prosper, or we can fight it and drown. BP and its CEO Tony Hayward are drowning.

If any good can come from the Gulf oil disaster of 2010 it might be that it teaches that in addition to being very careful when drilling for oil one should also be extremely careful when speaking to the public.

Most public relations professionals already know how to speak to the public through the news media. But not everyone has public relations counsel, and not everyone who does have public relations counsel pays attention to it. Hayward, because he responded to a corporate blunder of historic proportions with communication missteps of epic proportions, is the new cultural symbol of communicative incompetence. He replaces Sen. John Edwards and Tiger Woods who were only keeping the seat warm.

Public relations strategies and tactics can be used to mitigate a problem, but they cannot be used to alter reality. There are two unalterable facts here. First, what is sometimes referred to as the Gulf oil spill is not a spill; it is a disaster. Ecologically and economically, it is a full-fledged disaster. Second, BP and its decision-making executives are responsible. They are not victims, they are not coconspirators with President Barack Obama, and they are not innocent bystanders. They aggressively pursued permission to drill in the ocean, they made promises about safety and reliability, and they caused an ecological disruption roughly proportional to that of a hurricane or a volcano.

Nothing anyone can say will make these two facts go away or seem acceptable. This is going to cost BP a lot of money, and it will certainly cost Hayward his job. What is at stake for BP and Hayward is life after the disaster. There is one scenario where the public and the legal entities that represent them will say, OK, you screwed up, you really, really, screwed up, but we are going to give you another chance because we trust that you learned your lesson. And there is another scenario where the public and their legal agencies say, You screwed up, and we don't trust you, and we are going to fine and boycott you into oblivion.

The communication objective, then, is not to make the problem go away; that is impossible. The objective is to respond to the crisis in ways that convey honesty and goodwill and create the potential for eventual reconciliation. This would require accepting responsibility, demonstrating sincere remorse, and fully cooperating with the agencies that are trying to respond to the ecological disaster.

This is decidedly not what BP and CEO Hayward have been doing. Instead, they are providing a primer of what not to do. Here are BP's 12 epic mistakes from a public relations perspective.

They did not anticipate the impact that negligence on this scale could have. If a company sells ice cream cones, it has a bucket and mop handy and is staffed with employees who know how to use them.

  1. If the company drills for and sells billions of dollars of gasoline every year, then it is reasonable to expect them to have billions of dollars worth of equipment, plans and personnel working to prevent and, if necessary, to clean up potential ecological disasters. This is really an issue of civic responsibility, but it is the charge of public relations staff to make sure decision makers do not ignore it.

  2. BP hired a blunt-speaking, hard-edged Ph.D. in Geology and made him CEO and, therefore, chief spokesperson for the company. One of the lessons American industry learned from Japanese competitors in the 1980s is that the best engineer does not necessarily make the best manager. CEOs need to be hired for their leadership abilities, and that means they have to be competent communicators. If they work for multinational, billion-dollar corporations they need to be outstanding leaders and dazzling communicators. Tony Hayward: bad hire.

  3. On April 20, the day of the explosion on the oil rig, which killed 11 people and started pumping tens of thousands of barrels of oil daily into the Gulf of Mexico, no adequately prepared and practiced crisis communication plan was implemented. At one point overwhelmed Andrew Gowers, BP head of group media, told the New York Times, ìit is not always easy to get your message across, the media focus has been so intense it has been a challenge to respond as fully as we would like on every issue.î Asked about preparing for a worst-case scenario, Gowers said that was not possible because the disaster was ìa completely unanticipated event.î Banks practice evacuating their buildings in preparation for fires; hospital emergency rooms dress up volunteers to look like victims and have ambulances drive them from nuclear facilities to the emergency rooms where doctors and nurses practice treating them for radiation burns; and professional public relations practitioners everywhere develop crisis communication plans that call for preparing executives and other spokespersons to act and speak appropriately if a crisis puts them into contact with the news media and the public. The bigger the organization, the bigger the public profile, the more apparent the need for a crisis plan that includes a communication component. Any Boy Scout will tell you: be prepared.

  4. April 29, the New York Times quoted Hayward saying to fellow executives, ìWhat the hell did we do to deserve this.î The potential negative responses to this rhetorical question are staggering. Seasoned public relations professionals know the only sure way to keep a comment out of the news is to not say it in the first place. This particular comment is so provocative Hayward should not have been thinking it for fear that he might mumble it to his wife in his sleep.

  5. May 3, Hayward said BP would clean up the oil, but that they were not responsible for the explosion. He blamed Transocean, the drilling rig and crew leased by BP. This raises two character issues. First, arguments have to make sense. If they do not, then listeners are likely to conclude that the speaker is stupid or dishonest. Anyone having experience with contractors probably opted for dishonest on this one. The second character issue is accountability. People we trust and respect take responsibility for their actions. Ronald Reagan seemed headed for impeachment hearings over the Iran Contra scandal. Then he appointed the Tower commission to investigate the issues, and he gave a speech saying, ìThis happened on my watchî and took responsibility for the actions of his staff. End of issue.

  6. May 14, Hayward said the Gulf of Mexico is a big ocean and characterized the amount of oil pouring into it as tiny and insignificant. This is dismissive. It implies that the environmentalists and all those in industries devastated by the disaster are crybabies. Instead of placating them, it challenges them to come back with more evidence, more arguments and more intensity. In theory, this is a public relations strategy, but most people learn it on the playground: don't bait your enemies.

  7. May 17, BP began siphoning oil from the ruined riser pipe, collecting 1,000 barrels a day. Hayward said they had turned the corner in dealing with the problem. The siphon solution was later abandoned. Sometimes optimism is detrimental. Sago Mine failed to counter optimistic comments made to the news media by families of its trapped miners and later had to announce their deaths. It was bad news either way, but much worse when it came while the entire nation was celebrating their survival. Think quickly and act slowly, especially when making public announcements.

  8. May 30, Hayward told the people of Louisiana that BP is sorry, but then said that no one wants this over more than he does and that he would like his life back. This is just arrogance. Public relations staffs need to keep people like this under wraps.

  9. June 3, BP started a $50 million television campaign saying they were sorry and that they would ìmake this right,î clean up every drop of oil, and ìrestore the shoreline to its original state.î The bigger issue is the ecological and economic disaster, not the public relations problem. Spending this much money on a communication campaign while the commitment to funding economic aid and cleanup is still in doubt signals that for BP appearances are more important than reality. Actions speak louder than words, or as public relations pioneer Ivy Lee said, no publicity without good works.

  10. June 8, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles predicted that in a few days the spill would be down to a trickle of only 10 to 35 barrels of oil a day. At this point, BP should have had a high-ranking corporate officer announce that they were parting company with Hayward. An old rule for crisis communication is name a spokesman who is not the CEO; then if things go bad, the CEO can step in and repair the damage. When the CEO causes the problem, the only solution is having the next highest-ranking officer announce that the CEO has been dismissed and restart the dialogue with the news media and the public on more ethical grounds. Instead, the next highest-ranking corporate officer echoed Hayward's unfounded and by now incendiary optimism.

  11. June 19, Hayward took part in an exclusive yachting race with his son off the coast of the Isle of Wight. A BP spokesperson said Hayward had not had a break since the spill began and he was just spending a few hours with his family. Here is proof that learning about symbolism in high school English is not a waste of time. Most people go on picnics or attend ball-games with their children. They might go fishing, and some could even go boating (unless they live in the Gulf). What Hayward did symbolically alienated him from the public. He was in his yacht, in a racing event, off the Isle of Wight, and in crystal clear water. Effective public speakers use language and public gestures that connect them to their audiences, not separate them. Call it the Marie Antoinette rule.

  12. BP board Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg publicly expressed his compassion for the ìsmall people.î This was particularly offensive to the public because of the elitist context created by the yacht race. In an attempt to dissolve the growing outrage in the United States, BP staff explained that ìsmall peopleî has a more positive connotation in Svanberg's native language. The response was too little too late. The BP public relations staff should have reviewed Svanberg's comments before they were uttered. Then instead of telling the public what Svanberg meant, they could have told Svanberg how small people would sound in the native language of the victims of the disaster and suggested more effective language. This illustrates a public relations problem that lies at the root of all the others. BP's public relations efforts were reactive when they should have been proactive.

Public relations is usually not an ongoing concern for the individual aggregate mining operation, and some mine operators may feel like these are problems that happen only to others. Yet, because of the vast number of mining facilities, and because issues like asbestos, land use, and environmental pollution are so incendiary, the mining industry as a whole is consistently engaged with public opinion issues. Professional mining associations and publications like Rock Products provide exposure to potential public relations scenarios and present methods for anticipating, preventing, and possibly mitigating potentially devastating conflicts with public opinion.

Minimally, every mining organization, no matter how small, should have one top executive responsible for public relations. This person may wear a lot of other hats, but he or she should have a yearly responsibility of assessing possible crisis scenarios and preparing to deal with them. This can be managed by attending public relations workshops when they are offered, by reading the public relations columns and stories in industry publications, by monitoring public opinion issues in the general news, and, if necessary, by retaining public relations counsel. It amounts to a few days of someone's time; an ounce of prevention worth billions of dollars and pounds sterling of cure.

Thomas Roach holds a Ph.D. in communication and writes Rock Products' monthly column Public Debate.

From the editor: It may seem highly irregular for an aggregate magazine to run a feature story about an oil-rig disaster. Yet this disaster is one of those game-changers, not just for BP, but possibly the entire industry. Large-scale disasters can happen in any industry, and the public relations lessons from BP's handling of this situation can be applied across the board, the aggregate industry included. But, it is particularly relevant because both industries share natural-resource extraction as a primary function. After this article was written, BP stemmed the flow of oil into the Gulf and replaced its CEO.