It always amazes me about the lack of lucid public relations thinking during corporate crises. After all, there are tons of case studies to study about effective (and disastrous) handling of a crisis. The gold standard for dealing with a crisis was set back in the 1980s by Johnson and Johnson after it had to deal with cyanide tainting of Tylenol. The Tylenol crisis case has been studied to death in every MBA class and PR manual. But tonight, I'll make a few remarks on BP's handling of its crisis and will comment on what it should have done (and should be doing) in terms of PR. Of course, a pure parallel can not be drawn between Tylenol's crisis and BP's oil disaster. For one, the Tylenol poisoning was not the fault of Johnson & Johnson (or at least was not perceived to be) because a sicko tampered with the packages of Tylenol at stores whereas BP is allegedly for the underwater oil geyser because of cutting corners. Then again, Johnson & Johnson didn't have anywhere close to the $12 billion in annual profits that BP has to play with.
So how should BP have handled (and be handling) this disaster from a PR perspective? Here are three thoughts.
The right spokesperson
I resent even commenting on this first point because it is so elementary. Crisis management requires two immediate steps (i) notify all stakeholders so that they get your message properly framed; and (ii) have a single, competent, credible, spokesperson to provide the message to the key stakeholders. Again, there are excellent case studies that provide guidance on this. Tylenol did it right. Chysler when dealing with staffers who rolled back the odometers on new cars, on the other hand, did as bad a job as was thought possible - until BPs Tony Hayward came along. Let's revisit some of Tony's faux pas and tactless remarks:
"What the hell did we do to deserve this?" - April 29th (Daily Finance)
"I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest." - May 14 (Newsweek)
"...the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." -May 18 (Fortune)
"...there’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back." - May 30 (Newsweek)(Don't forget that 11 of his staff lost their lives during the explosion)
"... food poisoning is clearly a big issue" June 1,(Newsweek) responding to claims that workers were hospitalized with nose bleeds, nausea, headaches, dizziness and chest pains while cleaning up the slick with dispersant.
Point one is clear. BP either needed to train Tony a lot better on PR or get a better spokesperson, which they eventually did. But keeping Tony Hayward, who probably has a lot of other decent skills, as the face of BP was a big, bad mistake.
Save the whales and dolphins too...
Let's compare Exxon's 1980's spill in Alaska to BP's 2010 Gulf disaster. Again, any PR professional will tell you that pictures are a lot more powerful than words. Exxon's brand got blistered by the media which constantly showed pictures of oil-drenched birds and soggy coastline. Let's look at BP's situation. BP's sludge is much bigger and covers a much larger area than Exxon's. The Gulf, by virtue of its geography, has more abundant and vibrant wildlife. In 2010, people have digital cameras and access to the Net and there are more news channels than ever before. Environmental awareness is at an all-time high. Furthermore, more people live in the Gulf area than Alaska meaning that more people are going to be taking more pictures to a larger, receptive audience. Translation: there will be a record number of oil-drowned birds, dying dolphins, sick sharks, suffocating Portuguese man-o-wars, ailing whales and sick turtles coming out of the BP carnage. BP needs something bold. It ought to have mobilized (and still should) a massive "save the animals" initiative. A $1 billion initiative to rescue and clean-up Gulf animal inhabitants would go a long way to saving animal life as well as show BP's commitment to Mother Earth. Let's take this idea one step further. BP could also announce an environmental refuge for these saved critters. In addition to being "a right thing to do", these efforts could be used to frame many positive news stories creating goodwill for the brand. Other brands like Ivory or Dawn would probably want to join in the clean up and natural refuge. There would also be spill-over benefits for the local communities if local folks could be hired and trained to help rescue and clean the animals and manage the wildlife refuge. With additional jobs, the local economies are buffered a bit from the oil sludge calamity. In addition, BP will have some good will when facing judges and politicians' wraths at election times.
BP's has already agreed to pay out compensation to businesses and communities affected by their spill. So, BP's about to deal with lengthy court cases, massive legal fees, bad-speak by politicians and more negative press. How about this for a novel solution, courtesy of a buddy of mine? BP could buy out the local businesses affected by the sludge. Think about it. BP could make offers to buy out hundreds (if not thousands) of small businesses for a measly $1 billion. This will infuse a lot of money into the local economies which would help to avoid legal pains, and political and PR wrath. It's a radical idea but BP needs to do something big and proactive. But, time is running out.
If we revisit PR case studies, Tylenol came up with bold, proactive initiatives (rewards to capture the murderer(s), tamper-proof packaging, deals with the victims' families) and dealt with third parties (including governmental agencies) to come up with solutions. Chrysler, by contrast, played its hand only when forced by regulators. Tylenol rebounded immediately and came back stronger than ever; Chrysler tarnished its brand. The reality for BP is that it is going to pay very handsomely for its disaster. My point is that it is a lot better off for the everyone involved- communities, environment, and BP - for BP to take some bold, massive environmental initiatives and communicate them clearly to all stakeholders. So far, BP has failed on both fronts.