Ethics Thought Leadership

Can the BP Brand Survive Tony Hayward?

The more that BP CEO Tony Hayward speaks, the less credible he and the company become.

It’s been seven weeks since 11 workers were killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. The resulting oil leak continues to pour thousands of barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico — despite all attempts to stop it — and now surpasses the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Just 10 short years ago, BP, the company that leases the oil rig, successfully rebranded itself as being “green.” As part of the rebranding, British Petroleum shortened its name to BP (which doesn’t sound like a dirty oil company), changed the company’s logo to a green and yellow sunflower pattern (to highlight its interest in alternative and environmentally friendly fuels) and upgraded its filling stations. The company’s advertising campaign encouraged viewers to see BP as moving “beyond petroleum.” Nary an oil rig, oil refinery or oil-drenched pelican in sight.

It’s ironic then, to say the least, to see BP’s multi-million-dollar, award-winning  re-branding campaign now drowning in a sea of leaking oil and in the gross mismanagement of basic crisis communications.

Did the company take responsibility for the disaster, provide details of what happened and acknowledge the damage done? Yes … well, sort of. BP explained the cause, but mischaracterized the resulting oil leak as “tiny.” Since then, the company has been caught multiple times attempting to block the free flow of information (a basic tenet of ethical public relations) and obstruct the media’s coverage.

Did it assign the most credible employee — usually the CEO or another top leader — to be its single source of BP information? Yes … well, sort of. The company’s CEO, Tony Hayward, has been its sole spokesperson, but the more he speaks, the less credible he and the company become. A geologist by trade, Hayward simply is not a good communicator. 

Did BP explain what it is doing to remedy the crisis? Yes … well, sort of. Many “remedies” have been put forward and none have worked, forcing Hayward into the awkward acknowledgement  that his company was not adequately prepared to stop the leak.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Hayward said it was “entirely fair” to criticize BP for not being better equipped to fight the oil leak. “What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your toolkit,” he admitted.

The other important tool missing from Hayward’s toolkit deal is the ability to manage the company’s crisis communications.

The only way for BP to manage the real-time, 24/7 video of oil gushing into the Gulf will be to cork the bleeding pipe. What should be more manageable, however, is putting a cork in the company’s spokesperson.

Hayward’s desire to “get his life back” (a statement for which he later apologized), attempts to minimize the leaking oil’s impact on the environment and the health of cleanup workers, as well as his other public-speaking gaffes, make one wonder if BP’s public relations team isn’t serving him well. Or perhaps he’s not listening, in what would be a grave example of why public relations should have a seat in the “C Suite.”

Instead of letting the information flow as freely as its oil, BP has reined in Hayward and filled the void with an uber-defensive, $50 million advertising campaign outlining all the great things the company is doing to fix the oil leak (or at least try to).

But replacing Hayward’s ineptness, arrogance and insensitivity for the people who live and work on the Gulf with a pricey paid media campaign is not the answer. Who believes those ads? Despite all of its flaws, earned media and, now, social media are where most people go to get credible, believable information.

As a communications effort destined for the “Hall of Shame,” we’ll look back years from now and examine the many mistakes BP made and recall its inability to practice credible, transparent public relations. For better or worse, BP will be the topic of crisis communications case studies and public relations textbooks for years to come.

Congratulations Exxon Valdez; you’ve been supplanted by BP.

Steven Grant, APR, a member of the PRSA Board of Directors, is the senior manager of public relations for the National Education Association and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

6 Comments

  • I am not sure that I entirely agree with you. Some of your outrage and criticism of the communication effort seems to revolve around the the fact that BP hasn’t been able to plug the leak. But that is a technical issue and a major challenge given the enormous depths at which they are trying to work.

    The fact that BP was unprepared technically for such an accident, again, should not necessarily justify a criticism of the communications effort. I agree that Tony Haywood has made a number of gaffes, primarily because his comments lent themselves to be misunderstood rather than because he is an insensitive or unfeeling cad. You are right to question whether his PR folks are serving him well. But it also underscores something I have thought for some time — that the conventional PR wisdom of the CEO always being the guy who should be out front may not be wise if the CEO is not up to the task.

    My read of BP’s efforts right now is that they are trying to use as many channels of communication as they can to let people know what is being done and where additional information can be found. I don’t find their newspaper ads nearly as offensive as you seem to. I also find their web postings on the spill to be fairly robust and a nice balance of technical information and disaster response information.

    I always thought that the Beyond Petroleum campaign was disingenuous given that BP still makes most of its money from oil and gas. In fact, I think they even rebalanced the campaign to include petroleum in the message mix — something they seemed to run away from in the early part of the campaign. As for their communications efforts on the spill — if you separate the technical issues such as stopping the leak from what they are saying about it — I am willing to withhold my vote for induction into the Hall of Shame for a bit.

  • I agree that BP is ill-served by the CEO as spokesperson. His statements continue to undercut the company’s efforts because he comes across as uncaring. For a messaging training in Baton Rouge, a colleague and I used a YouTube clip of Hayward telling Sky News that, ultimately, the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico was a “modest amount.” When asked for comments, training participants reacted strongly, saying Hayward was lying and that his body language shouted that he didn’t want to be doing the interview.

    Making the point that effective messaging shows some emotion — especially in a crisis — we then played a clip of a Fox News commentator responding to Hayward’s comments, noting the serious toll on wildlife and the seafood industries along the Gulf Coast. It made a dramatic contrast.
    In a crisis, the spokesperson should take responsibility for the problem, explain clearly what is being done to fix it and should NEVER minimize the scope of the damage. Through attitude and words, an effective spokesperson displays care and concern for those affected. BP should put a different spokesperson on the air.

  • I don’t like to play Monday morning quarterback and I’m sure BP has good PR professions on staff or at least on retainer who are advising them.

    I’m pretty sure those professionals are giving solid advice to build trust and credibility by communicating:
    • Empathy and caring (acknowledge people’s fears)
    • Competence and expertise (explain the process in lay terms)
    • Honesty and openness (don’t over reassure)
    • Commitment and dedication (tell people how it is going to be resolved)

    And I’m pretty sure those PR professionals are banging their heads against the conference room table when interacting with legal counsel and senior executives. The natural reaction often is to shutdown and get defensive instead of truly communicating. A crisis of this level, it is so important to communicate in a truthful, meaningful, respectful manner.

    My worry is that the PR professionals aren’t at the table being the conscience of the company nor they are being heard.

  • I think we may also be witnessing a crisis event that is literally overwhelming the organization technically, socially and, perhaps, even economically. Katrina was that sort of event for federal, state and local governments — particularly in Louisiana. I believe PR pros may be looking at the situation and thinking that this is a failure of individuals or the organization to follow best practices. In many ‘crisis’ events, that would probably be the correct diagnosis. But the more I watch this unfold…with new, different issues cropping up nearly every day, I am beginning to think that no organization is equipped to handle this situation — certainly not with the effortlessness of Gods. This is ugly because it is a huge, unprecedented event, that consumes physical, financial and human resources at a terrifying rate. Our profession would do well to look at this not merely as a text book case of how NOT to handle a crisis, but as an opportunity to explore fresh thinking on handling crisis events that happen on a cataclysmic scale.

  • Tom, that’s a really valid point. This is a crisis of such legal complexity and cataclysmic scale that the standard rules of crisis communications aren’t adequate to the task, at least at this stage. Still I can’t help but believe that IF BP had acted quickly from the start to disclose full and complete information to the Coast Guard, to scientists trying to understand the scope of the leak, and to coastline communities and businesses — the blowout’s consequences might have lessened. At least coastline communities would have been better prepared. The low level of trust in the energy industry and corporate America is sinking even lower as a consequence, I suspect.

    I posted a blog on the topic on my agenc’s website yesterday. http://bit.ly/aUm7Fb

  • If it was a willful attempt to hid the facts, then I agree. I can’t tell, however, whether this was an intentional decision to withhold or an inability to get a accurate estimate in the early days of the event. Over time we will learn that, I think. For the moment, however, I maintain that this is a PR disaster because it is an actual disaster of a magnitude rarely experienced by most companies.

    I now am willing to concede and agree with at least part of Steven Grant’s original thesis — that Tony Haywood (and perhaps his PR advisors) is totally tone deaf on PR matters. After watching him get sliced and diced by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, I don’t doubt that he needed to take a break, but yachting?!

    Oddly, the President seems to have a bit of a blind spot as well, at least when it comes to playing golf. Leaders (public or private) are often under enormous pressures and need some break from the mental and physical strain on them. Unfortunately, they and their aids too often promote an image of them standing at the helm day and night, unbent by the storm that would overwhelm normal people. The fact is, Tony Haywood, Barack Obama, you, me, can run on adrenaline for only a few days before fatigue requires that we relinquish the helm to others.

    That said, Haywood’s choice of taking a break by grabbing a different helm had to have been the biggest gaffe of his gaffe-filled last two months.

    This whole situation deserves a panel discussion at the national meeting in Washington this October, I believe. Anyone at national listening?

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