There's been an interesting development in the ongoing oil spill saga. BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg has replaced CEO Tony Hayward as the person in charge of the oil spill cleanup with Managing Director Robert Dudley. Ostensibly, the change is being brought about by Hayward's rather abysmal handling of public relations and demonstrates decisive leadership by Svanberg.
However, this move is right out of the crisis communications handbook. It axiomatic that you never use your top person as your spokesperson in a crisis. This allows for plausible deniability if your initial message goes south and allows your top person to step in and "resolve" the crisis.
While there is no question that Hayward has committed some serious gaffes, one has to wonder why. BP certainly can afford to hire the very best crisis management consultants and for a crisis of this magnitude, it is inconceivable that they haven't. Yet it seems that Hayward has not had access to competent crisis communications advice.
Even someone new to the concept of crisis communications could have suggested that denying your responsibility for the oil spill in a Congressional hearing is a non-starter. I'm willing to believe that Hayward really didn't know about the bad decisions surrounding the spill. After all, it's good management to delegate decisions to the lowest level. However, when you're the CEO, you're responsible for those decisions.
And what about the yacht race vacation in the middle of the crisis? Certainly, Hayward is not really essential to day-to-day operations and is entitled to some time off. But again, even a crisis communications neophyte could explain the importance of symbolism and sending the wrong message.
So one has to wonder - has BP been using a very subtle strategy all along or are they really inept at crisis communications?
My good friend, Art Taber, sent me a link to BP'sRegional Oil Spill Response Plan - Gulf of Mexico dated June 30, 2009. Although Art is not an emergency manager, he took the time to read the 583 page document and offered the following observations:
Whether Art's observations are accurate is not the point. What is important is that in this day and age, your plans are readily accessible to informed and involved citizens like my friend Art and you will be held accountable for their contents in the court of public opinion. And before you use this as an argument that your plans should notbe posted on the Internet, remember that these plans must be provided to a private citizen if you're a government agency under the Freedom of Information Act or during pre-trial discovery in a lawsuit if you're a private organization. Regardless, electronic media files are still easier to leak to the media than hard copies were in the days of the Pentagon Papers. Sooner or later, the public is going to get to read them.
So what's the solution? Do I really need to spell it out? Stop writing plans merely to meet requirements and start writing plans that really address the problems they were intended to solve. Want it simpler? Do the right thing.
A recent op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by Ian Mitroff dealt with lessons that we should be learning from the recent oil spill in the Gulf. Mitroff is a professor at Alliant University in San Francisco and a senior investigator in the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley. He makes four very salient points:
Part of my frustration is that this is the same message we've been trying to communicate for years as emergency managers but our leaders are still not getting it. Part of the reason is that deep down in the hidden recesses of their hearts, most people really don't believe a disaster will happen; that if it occurs, it won't happen to them; or if it does happen to them, it won't be that bad. That's human nature.
However, when you're in a position of responsibility with the lives and livelihood of others depending on you, it might just be in your own best interests to listen to your advisors and do something about mitigation and preparedness before something bad happens. It's cheaper and better than trying to explain to the public and your shareholders after the event why you didn't do spend a few dollars to prevent a catastrophic loss.