BP: finally plugging their PR leak

The announcement of the departure of BP CEO Tony Hayward was the final nail in the coffin today of what has played out as the ultimate ‘how not to do it’ crisis scenario.

Gaffe number one came when he very foolishly (albeit very honestly) told the media “I want my life back” in an interview. It looked as though he was caught off-guard in a ‘doorstep’ interview, but even so, he should have known better than to make such an ill-thought off-the-cuff comment. I’m sure his (now former?) PR team would agree.

Next, he was quoted as saying that the environmental impact of the spill would be “very, very modest”. No doubt in a bid to try to calm things/play the crisis down. It did not work.

Then, in what came across as an act of sheer irreverance in the middle of such an almightly environmental disaster, Hayward was photographed gallavanting on a yacht off the coast of the Isle of White.

In short, his handling of press relations after BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year has been nothing short of disastrous.

As what seemed to be the the entire US nation drummed itself up into a frenzie over the spill (no thanks to the anti-British sentiment stirred up by Obama), Hayward showed a distinct lack of compassion that no amount of nerves or intense pressure can explain away.

One PR sums it up well: ‘Tony Hayward had to go. It could have been different had he communicated better. Whether he meant it or not, he displayed a distinct lack of care for the victims and their families; nor did he seem to be prepared to take responsibility for the disaster, which is the ultimate role of a CEO in such circumstances.”

So, what of the imcoming CEO, Bob Dudley? Is it as simple as an American stepping in to save the day? Given the attitude among the US people at the moment, it probably is. BP has a lot of ground to make up. A new CEO with the right attitude and much-needed advice could bring about a much-needed turnaround.

“Tony Hayward’s departure is not so much a good PR move as the inevitable consequence of his poor communication during the crisis: it was simply not in BP’s best commercial or reputational interest for him to soldier on. Assuming his replacement is indeed Bob Dudley, an American accent and links with the southern states will play well in the US and provide a starting point for reputation recovery in the States. Given that Tony Hayward was seen to be a key contributor to this crisis, his removal will be seen externally as a positive step towards BP protecting what is left of its reputation.”

Another corporate communications and issues management expert said: “BP will hope that Hayward’s departure draws a line under the incident. However, his successor will need to show that BP has learned the lessons from the past few months to begin to rebuild reputation in the States and further afield.”

Hayward had to go, there was no question of that. It could have been different had he communicated better, but sadly for BP, this is yet another example of the untold damage a tragic crisis poorly handled can do to a company’s reputation.

For information on Bluewood’s crisis-handling media courses, visit our website: www.bluewoodtraining.com

Gemma Carey, Bluewood Training Ltd

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