BP’s Crisis Communications Strategy Is Fundamentally Flawed

Written by James Hoggan

How a company handles a crisis is the ultimate test of its character.

Does it accept responsibility for mistakes or bad decisions, work to make amends and to improve its practices moving forward?

Or does it resort to what I call Darth Vader PR, launching a public relations offensive to spin the public, seeking to deflect legitimate criticism?

If you fail this crisis communications test, as BP has recently, it usually indicates underlying character problems in your organization.  It demonstrates that you are out of touch with the momentous shift of social norms towards a more sustainable economic and environmental future.

The New York Times reported recently that BP CEO Tony Hayward is in the crosshairs for his repeated gaffes and BP’s alleged cover-ups:

“Instead of reassuring the public, critics say, Mr. Hayward has turned into a day-after-day reminder of BP’s public relations missteps in responding to the crisis…
Mr. Hayward and the company have repeatedly played down the size of the spill, the company’s own role in the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, and the environmental damage that has occurred. At the same time, they have projected a tone of unrelenting optimism despite repeated failures to plug the well.”

There’s a word for that ‘unrelenting optimism’ in the face of total failure to get the job done – incompetence.  BP not only can’t plug the blowout, the company can’t even express genuine concern about the impact of its growing mess.  There’s a word for that too – insincerity.

As a result, the NY Times notes that “the company and Mr. Hayward face a public relations crisis that will last for many months.”

The reason BP finds itself in a PR ‘crisis’ is clear – the public doesn’t trust BP, and for good reason.  Where is the concern in BP’s response?  Does the company feel any real sense of responsibility behind their polished PR messaging?

People recognize sincerity and competence when they see it.  And it’s never on such full display as in your response to a crisis. Can they trust you? Do they have confidence that you will do the right thing?

In BP’s case, the answer is clearly No.

BP’s only concerns in the wake of this disaster should be providing for the families of the workers who were killed, plugging the ongoing calamity on the sea floor, and protecting the ecosystems of the Gulf which support the livelihoods of its residents – the humans, birds and marine life that will continue to bear the brunt of the impact of this disaster for years to come.

Long after BP stops airing ads featuring its CEO Tony Hayward pledging to “do everything we can so this never happens again,” the Gulf will bear irreparable scars – perhaps the loss of bluefin tuna from the Gulf forever, and untold damage to other species – because BP let it happen in the first place.

Instead of opening up the flow of information, operating transparently, and communicating honestly about the blowout, BP has turned to Darth Vader PR.  Darth Vader PR begins with an ethical misstep in which important social or environmental problems are redefined as public relations issues to be finessed rather than as legitimate concerns to be addressed.

BP has exhibited a lot of Darth Vader tactics lately.  BP’s web teams in Houston and London, together with the company’s marketing executives, have purchased search terms and phrases on leading search engines like Google and Yahoo in order to drive traffic towards the company’s spin and away from independent analysis elsewhere.

BP has tried to block information about the oil flow rate, muzzled its employees, harassed photographers and members of the press, and manipulated the flow of information by claiming proprietary rights over footage of the oil gushing into the Gulf.

BP has retained the Brunswick Group, a firm specializing in crisis management, to deal with the accident response.  BP also appointed former Brunswick employee Anne Womack Kolton as its new head of media relations.  Kolton previously served as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and as spokesperson for the Bush Energy Department, neither of which was known for its transparency or for its concern about the environment.

It is anyone’s guess what Brunswick and Kolton are advising BP to do, but there is reason to believe their crisis response team is more concerned with spin than substantive change within the company’s culture.

What happens at BP is a harbinger of the attitude of the entire industry.  As the top oil and gas producer in the U.S. and the largest deepwater operator in the Gulf of Mexico, BP sets the tone for all its competitors.

What kind of strange world do Tony Hayward and BP think we live in when they resort to airing insincere apology ads and telling the public that the Gulf is huge so this ‘spill’ is of “very modest” impact?  Are they really that detached from reality to suggest that this was just a simple engineering accident that will amount to a blip on the radar of maritime history? (By the way, this is not a ‘spill’ by any stretch of the imagination, and the media should stop calling it that.)

Contrast the BP ‘we’re sorry’ ads with the treatment doled out by Stephen Colbert earlier this week, or the impassioned tirades of James Carville as he blasted the lackadaisical response to this monumental disaster.

As federal investigators probe BP’s actions to determine where the company went wrong, they should remember to ask the question, is this an industry that is capable of doing the right thing?

The disaster in the Gulf is not the result of some long-shot unforeseeable accident.  Blowouts have occurred throughout the industry, and will continue to happen as long as we rely so heavily on oil and other fossil fuels.

The BP disaster – like the Massey Energy coal mine tragedy – is a symptom of our fossil fuel addiction.  It will repeat itself, perhaps not in such grotesque fashion, if we’re lucky, but it will happen again until we address the addiction and cure it by moving to cleaner sources of energy that don’t jeopardize our livelihoods, our food supplies, our summer beach vacations, and our fishing and tourism jobs.

Let the Gulf disaster be the last time a CEO ever tries to downplay an ecological and economic catastrophe as “very modest.”

It’s time to do the right thing – ditch the Darth Vader PR, transition off fossil fuels quickly and work with elected leaders to build a clean energy future so we truly never find ourselves in this predicament ever again.

10 Tips for Communicating in Tough Times – BP Oil Spill Disaster

Author: Jim Hoggan

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has grabbed the world’s attention and in a crisis of this magnitude it is imperative that the company and government officials maintain a high-level of communication with the public.

Here is a list of 10 Tips for Communicating in Tough Times that we’ve developed here at Hoggan & Associates and while they are more general, I think they are very applicable to the current disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

1. Prepare a Communications Plan
If the current market, or any other factor, is presenting a major challenge for your business, make sure that you are ready to respond publicly as necessary. Prepare a timetable. Set out a list of strategic messages. Pick (and train) a spokesperson. And prepare for the tough questions. It’s best – if not always possible – to control the timing of negative announcements, but you should be ready, one way or the other, when reporters start to call.

2. Rip the Band-Aid Off Quickly
Once a bad news story breaks, it’s best to release all the details as quickly and forthrightly as possible. It’s much better to suffer one very bad day in the media spotlight than to become a regular bad-news feature as details dribble out over time. There are exceptions, but getting your whole story out quickly, is usually the fastest way to get off the front page.

3. Bad News Starts to Stink When it Gets Buried
There are two kinds of news releases: candid releases about successes and failures, and baloney sandwiches with bad news hidden between thick layers of promises and excuses. Dressing up a horrible story might make the boss feel better, but a glossy wrapping on a sordid tale will only irritate reporters and insult stakeholders.

4. Choose Your Spokesperson Well
A well-informed, credible and sincere spokesperson can be a blessing in any crisis. But a spokesperson who is evasive, defensive and combative – one who takes tough questions personally – will arouse suspicion and, potentially, fear. So, choose carefully. Identify a natural communicator who is trainable – and then train them. Choose someone who is quick to grasp technical issues, but plainspoken. And choose an employee, not an outside consultant who may be seen as a “spinner”.

The spokesperson doesn’t need to be from the executive suites, but they need corporate support and authority to answer reasonable questions or explain, quickly and politely, why not.

5. Don’t Launch Your Story Till You Know Where It Might Safely Land
Forthrightness is a virtue, but there is no point rushing out to talk about your troubles until you have crafted a potential solution and a plan to put the elements of that solution into effect.

6. Accentuate the Positive
Again, you can be up front about a problem without dwelling on it. If your sales are off, but your cash position leaves you well-armed to weather a recession, say so. If you are laying off employees to reposition the company on firmer ground, say so. Most readers/investors/stakeholders are aware that we’re in tough times. But they’ll be happy to hear compelling news that better days are ahead.

7. Correct Negative Rumors
It’s risky at the best of times to ignore the news, and it’s always a good idea to correct factual errors in print or television stories about your business. But it’s particularly critical in times of uncertainty that you act quickly to rein in faulty rumours. Negative stories that might have no credibility at all in normal circumstances suddenly sound feasible when some of the biggest financial institutions in the world have collapsed in failure. So, answer the phone – or call reporters directly. Make sure the news – good or bad – is accurate.

8. Listen: It’s the First Best Step in all Communications
Whether you’re thinking about your customers, investors or employees, the key to good relations often rests in paying attention – in listening. While not paying attention is at the root of most public relations problems, listening builds understanding; and responding to what you hear builds relationships. Always try to look for new ways to get feedback. Conduct surveys, book tell-me-more meetings with clients or customers, have coffee with your employees. Be sure that you know what your workers, customers and investors think about you, your business and your products.

9. Make the Most of Social Media
The internet, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, websites and blogs beyond number have changed media forever, making it harder to hide bad news, but easier to convey your message. Social media allows you to speak directly to your customers, shareholders or stakeholders and to hear directly back. It allows you to make information widely available without relying on the filter of conventional media. You ignore it at your peril, but if you embrace it, you’ll find untold – and previously impossible – advantages.

10. Do the Right Thing
This, ultimately, is always the right advice if you are serious about building and protecting a good reputation.

Reputable companies all follow this path:

1. They do the right thing.

2. They are seen to be doing the right thing.

3. They don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up. That is, they don’t treat the crisis simply as a public relations problem. Nor do they assume people will automatically understand or believe that they have done the right thing.

Hard times usually offer an opportunity for struggling businesses to display their true character. This is the way to ensure that opportunity works in your favour.