04/11/2010

Once the most sure-footed and progressive oil companies in the world, BP’s reputation and value was reduced to tatters in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster earlier this year. All About Brands’ Director and former journalist, Andrew Mackay, says BP made some fundamental errors of judgment which, with some good PR advice, could easily have been avoided.

The corporate world spends millions of dollars each year on crisis preparedness, disaster management and media training so executives are prepared for what to say, and how to react, when it hits the fan.

But any amount of planning can be unraveled in seconds by an aside to camera or, worse, an insensitive gaffe which, in former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s case, will surely pass into business folklore as a byword for How Not To Do it. Where were his PR consultants; what were they telling him?

His remark that he ‘wanted to get his life back’ and then, in an even more crass move seemingly designed to confirm the worst prejudices of the media, to be filmed enjoying himself in a luxury yacht off the Isle of Wight, were nails in his coffin.

Poor Tony Hayward. Here was the living proof that, while Chairmen and CEOs can lead their companies successfully in peace time, they do not always make the best leaders in a crisis.

Contrast the demeanour of the Chairman of Toyota, tearful and bowing at a news conference to announce the car giant’s latest recall, with Tony Hayward’s, while his Rome metaphorically burned in the background. He looked uncomfortable during media interviews, gave a less than convincing performance to the Congressional hearings and simply looked out of place on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

But can any major company ‘win’ in a crisis? Even if the BP Board had acted quickly to replace Hayward as its crisis front man, would he have then faced accusations of hiding and abdicating his responsibility?

It is easy for pundits to be wise after the event, but BP’s crisis showed that, very often, simple expressions of regret or remorse can mitigate the reputational and brand damage inflicted by some unfriendly, short-term headlines, and help neutralise the people power that seemed to have been so effectively mobilized in this case.

Who can forget those powerful images of crosses in a ‘cemetery’ symbolizing the loss of jobs and livelihoods by the people of Louisiana?

British politicians have advanced the argument — with some success — that the loss of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is a painful sacrifice, but a price ultimately worth paying in the larger cause of fighting terrorism.

Why should peddling that line be any less palatable than saying that deep-sea oil drilling is inherently risky and that loss of life is inevitable - as long as people want to fill their cars with petrol? It may not have diminished the pain of the grieving families, but served to put the whole episode into the wider context.

Where was the robust defence of BP’s deep-sea drilling strategy as being of vital importance to global energy demand?

But even when the aftermath of one of the worst eco-disasters in history fades from public consciousness, the abiding memory will be of how BP got this so extraordinarily wrong: from its communications and deployment of senior management to handle the crisis, to how people power so comprehensively wrong-footed the company, to its misreading of the media’s tendency to side with the ‘little people’ (that was how BP’s Chairman referred to the people affected by the disaster).

What comes next? Even as its share price rebounds and reports suggest that the environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico is not as bad as initially feared, we can certainly expect some rebranding and softer messaging by the company to distance itself, physically and emotionally, from the disaster.

But, like its impact on the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s handling of the crisis will live on in the management textbooks as another unwanted legacy of one of the worst periods in the company’s 80-year history.


All About Brands (AAB) is a group of international companies collectively dedicated to building business value for clients through the effective development and management of their brands. To find out more visit www.aabplc.com


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