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BP and the Media – What Businesses of All Sizes Can Learn by Michael Dodd

Michael Dodd

It’s been hard to keep up with the multitude of ways BP mishandled the media over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But for BP and everyone else in business, the critical thing is to learn from the errors rather than repeat them.

Being prepared before bad things happen is a key part of this, even if your worst business nightmare is something less catastrophic than an oil spill.

Incredibly, for the chief executive officer of such a large firm, Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive officer at the time of the spill got it wrong at practically every stage.

And in the hope that Academy members don’t fall into the same kinds of traps, Mr Hayward has inspired me to offer a new workshop – “Preparing for Media Emergencies – Learning the Lessons from BP and the Gulf”.

Before the workshop I would always survey Academy members in the group to get them to identify the kind of emergencies they could potentially face.

Armed with this I then draw up some unfolding scenarios directly related to their concerns.

These would be put in the form of radio news reports.

Academy members would then reveal what they would do to deal with the emergencies in mock media interviews.

These interviews are then critiqued so the lessons are clear to all.

If Tony Hayward had been through this process – and had been fully receptive to the learning points – it would have saved BP billions.

But to stop you from following in wake, I’ve identified BP’s top seven gaffes – and put below each the key lesson which would have minimized rather than maximized the fallout.

  • Gaffe 1: “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” Tony Hayward talking to reporters on 30 May 2010 in Florida.
    Lesson: When your company has been responsible for something bad, never use an encounter with the media to express sympathy for yourself. All the more so if people have died in the disaster – not to mention a devastating impact on countless other living creatures. Keep your concern entirely fixed on the victims and their friends and family.
  • Gaffe 2: “The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people and their processes.” Tony Hayward in an interview with NBC on 20 April 2010.
    Lesson: Don’t blame others when your company is at least partly responsible. The key thing when something bad has happened is to demonstrate a responsible attitude. You look responsible by taking ownership of the problem, regardless of whether it was 100 per cent your fault or not.
  • Gaffe 3: “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.” Tony Hayward in an interview with The Guardian published 14 May 2010.
    Lesson 3: Put things in a wider context by all means, but don’t be ridiculous. Trying to talk away a problem which is appearing day after day on our screens is never going to work.
  • Gaffe 4: “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” Tony Hayward in interview on Sky News on 18 May 2010.
    Lesson 4: Don’t deny the bleeding obvious. Your audience isn’t stupid. Admit the size of the problem and speak about what you’re doing to tackle it.
  • Gaffe 5: On 17 May 2010, BP fitted a siphon to the wreckage which managed to collect around a thousand barrels of oil day. According to BP, this was roughly a fifth of the oil leaking out, though some scientists suggested there was much more oil escaping than the company was admitting. The siphoning effort, which was later abandoned, prompted Tony Hayward to declare “I do feel that we have, for the first time, turned the corner, in this challenge.”
    Lesson 5: Don’t declare light at the end of the tunnel when you aren’t certain. If you’re wrong, you just build public expectations higher for the subsequent big let down. Be cautious, and if things turn out better than predicted so much the better.
  • Gaffe 6: As billions were wiped off its share price, BP issued a statement on 10 June 2010 saying “The company is not aware of any reason which justifies this share price movement.”
    Lesson 6: When you have a problem, don’t pretend it isn’t there. You come across so much better in the media if you’re talking about how you’re seeking to solve the problem rather than denying it.
  • Gaffe 7: On 17 June 2010, Tony Hayward watched his boat take part in the JP Morgan Asset Management yacht race around the Isle of Wight – a decision defended by a BP spokesman saying Mr Hayward had not had a break since the spill began and was merely “spending a few hours with his family at the weekend”.
    Lesson 7: It’s not good to be seen leaving the scene and certainly the country where your problem is located without very good reason. But if you want to spend a little time with your family during a media storm there are ways of doing it which don’t involve flaunting yourself before the world – especially in an activity seen as one for the rich when victims less well off than you are suffering.
  • Underlying these gaffes – and the many I’ve had to leave out – is a fundamental. Whatever you’ve done and whatever you’re doing, you really have to care about the impact of what you do.

    Then in media interviews you can seek to demonstrate how you care.

    Trying to tell us you care first, before totally convincing yourself that you really do care doesn’t work.

    If this is what you choose to do, battalions of problems will flow. Being prepared is everything.

    And there’s bonus in going through the media crisis preparation process.

    Preparing for the worst focuses your people’s minds on the actual potential emergencies – beyond just adverse media coverage they could generate.
    This focus can in some cases even prevent the worst from happening.

    Michael Dodd is a broadcast journalist and commentator who enthrals audiences around the world on how to engage successfully with the media.
    His work has included speaking trips to Japan, Russia, France, Hungary, the United States, Brazil, China, Portugal, Dubai, Finland, Abu Dhabi and the Czech Republic. Michael’s expertise as a media trainer is founded on his work as a London-based media commentator and freelance foreign correspondent. He’s best known amongst British audiences for his live televised paper reviews.


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    1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Brian Chernett, Andy Coote, Bizwords. Andy Coote, Bizwords said: Lessons for any business from BP's handling of the media by Michael Dodd Some really good thoughts here. #ACE blog […]

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