Debate over crisis communication at BP

Oil company BP received yet another blow on Thursday in the form of a grilling by a US Congressional panel and heckles by angry citizens affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. According to a BBC reporter, “as a public relations exercise for BP, the hearing was a disaster.”

Business communicators agree BP is facing a PR nightmare, but many say it is at least partly of its own making. John Patella of Patella Ink called BP CEO Tony Hayward’s now infamous statement about wanting his life back from the crisis “the most tone-deaf comment” he’d ever heard pass a CEO’s lips during crisis communications.

“One of the key messages to convey in any crisis is one of empathy and concern,” Patella said. “Hayward’s comment shows an astonishing lack of awareness for the situation and what it requires.

Steven Grant writing for the Public Relations Society of America has gone as far as to ask: “Can the BP brand survive Tony Hayward?”

True, as CEO, Hayward is BP’s most credible employee, Grant states. But “the more he speaks, the less credible he and the company become. … Hayward simply is not a good communicator.”

Aimee Stern of Stern Communications further takes Hayward to task for hiring a new head of media relations who was a former aide to former US vice president Dick Cheney.

The writer said BP shouldn’t have underestimated (or as she says “lied” about) the extent of the spill. It as well should not have spent multimillions of dollars on advertising after the spill but rather put their money and executives down where they were needed¬† – at the damage site – and let the news cover it.

Dan Hicks, with the US Institute for Crisis Management, is among the commentators taking a different tack. Demonstrating the divide currently rending the US politically, he sees the hiring of the former Cheney communications aide as a positive move. The missteps of CEO Hayward aside, BP ‘s main problem is “operational, not communication.”

“This mess can’t be fixed through communications. It can be made worse through communications, but no communications are going to make this sow’s ear anything except a sow’s ear.”

In this regard, Hicks is in line with several professionals who have commented to bloggers and on discussion boards. They say that even if BP were pure as the driven snow (and the court is still out on that), even if the 20 April rig explosion was an unpreventable accident, 11 people are still dead and, as US government energy adviser Carol Browner stated, more oil is leaking in the Gulf of Mexico than at any other time in US history.

In the face these facts, these peole are asking: Who could give a good PR response?

Marc Galmoud