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Media and Crisis Management

BP debacle – Fix it rather than talk about it

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: BP debacle – Fix it rather than talk about itCrisis response

We watch oil ooze into bayous, onto beaches, smother brown pelicans, and ruin human lives after gushing from mile-down broken pipes following a deepwater drilling rig explosion.  Sometimes we can’t watch, look away, or turn it off.

So when a national radio news service asked me what PR actions BP needed to protect its reputation, I said, “PR?  Who gives a flip about PR when living things along the Gulf of Mexico are consumed by a preventable catastrophe?”

If ever a crisis drove home the saying that actions speak louder than words, this was it.  Rather than PR, it’s fix it!  Stop the leak and take care of those affected.  All else is secondary.  Plug the holes. Rescue the impacted.  End of story.  Ask those along the Gulf what they wanted from BP (or complicit Transocean or Halliburton).  They didn’t want talking points, glib CEO’s or congressional hearings.  They desperately needed the damned oil stopped and protection from the consequences.  Only after leak resolution would the pound of flesh matter.  Only then would they want to know: “How could you do this to us?  What were you thinking?  Were you thinking at all?”  Those near other drilling areas would ask, “How are you protecting us from such a horror?”

I dislike the term PR because many perceive it a synonym for spin.  Some naïve executives think, “If we can write the right words and convey sufficient pathos we could persuade the public that we are the good guys.”  True public relations, if practiced well, improves public well-being.  Appropriate action: appropriate words.  BP admitted it wasn’t sufficiently prepared for this magnitude of accident and response to it.  Such failure permitted the debacle and stalled the response.

Once disaster strikes words rarely suffice.  They’re a poor shovel for digging out of a pit when they ring hollow, contradictory, and misleading.  Yes, the oil company communicated almost constantly after the rig blew in April and the CEO seemed ever-present.  He promised BP would reimburse those affected and guide the recovery.  But those assurances hit the floor like a tar ball when one remembered that previous BP CEO’s vowed to correct problems after an earlier oil leak and a refinery explosion. The Deepwater Horizon still blew up.  Also, how could you believe BP’s intent to do right when it blamed drilling partners Transocean and Halliburton in congressional hearings?   How could you trust full page ads in The Wall Street Journal claiming BP will take full responsibility for dealing with the cleanup when on another page in the same section of the newspaper two unnamed company officials insisted it was Transocean’s fault?  And what measure of credibility does a company have when it repeatedly claimed a leak of 5000 barrels a day that virtually every expert said was far too low?

Meantime, the oil is sticking to President Obama.  Showing empathy or anger like a Reagan or Clinton is just not in hid DNA, and I’ve stopped wishing it were.  But he can still take command, if, as Frank Rich of the New York Times suggests, he stops deferring to the other smart guys in the room inside and outside the administration.   He has to own it: again, not in words, actions.

Finally, if all leaders needed motivation to anticipate the worst that could engulf their organizations and how they’d address it, this spill is it.

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