BP: Beyond PR

Bob Maistros Chief Writer, Reagan-Bush '84 campaign
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My erstwhile boss, the legendary crisis-management guru Linda Robinson, used to say, “Good PR can’t fix bad facts.”

Unfortunately for BP CEO Tony Hayward, he’s had too much of the latter—and not much of the former.

These days the facts don’t get much worse than at least 6 million gallons of crude in a slick the size of the state of Delaware, possibly headed for the Gulf Stream, fouling picturesque aquatic birds (worth decades of heart-rending photos for environmental fundraising), implicated in the deaths of sea turtles, dolphins and other living things, and shutting down huge swaths of the fishing industry. Oil seeping into the fragile Louisiana wetlands and tar balls washing up the Florida Keys.

An admission that the original 1,000-barrel-a-day estimate understated the output of the gusher by a factor of four, and expert guesstimates that it could be more like 60,000.

A constant drip of “what-went-wrong” speculation, including whistleblowers finding their way onto 60 Minutes. The contractors who were actually building and running the well and may well have actually been at fault, including Halliburton (Oh, no! How did they get involved?), pointing fingers at each other and you.

Not one, not two, not three, not four, but at least five governors involved, some flying around in helicopters and making hourly news off your plight. Capitol Hill abuzz with near-daily hearings before a range of committees and seas of cameras. A swarm of ambulance-chasing trial lawyers collecting no end of victims. The president of the United States essentially calling you an eco-terrorist and reminding everyone of your company’s tens of billions of dollars of liability. The EPA ordering you to halt the use of potentially toxic dispersants. And the Attorney General threatening possible criminal action.

Not to mention breathless, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, 24/7 reporting on your organization’s seemingly Keystone Kops-style efforts to halt the bubbling crude.

Facts like these put you “BP”: Beyond PR. You are screwed, no matter what.

So the objective in this situation is two-fold: minimize the damage. And take advantage of the opportunity to Demonstrate Leadership.

The best way to achieve both, of course, is to find and fix the problem fast and, if necessary, sacrificially (see the Johnson&Johnson Tylenol play).

Oops. That one’s out the door.

The other is to run the anti-Exxon playbook. As the CEO, be on-site and visible. Check. Don’t just cover the phones 24/7, but flood the media with the latest and greatest of everything you are doing to address the crisis. Check—I assume, given the phalanx of BP spokespeople available and the level of detail about their activities.

Intone solemn promises to “fully investigate,” “cooperate fully with the authorities” and do “whatever it takes” to fix the problem, and most important, ensure that it “never happens again.” Check, pretty much.

And absolutely key … when the facts are so totally stacked against you … throw yourself on the mercy of the Court of Public Opinion by showing contrition, compassion and sensitivity to the level of harm and dislocation involved, and establish conclusively that you are not Out of Touch.

Ruh roh.

Bad enough was the unconscionable effort to get the fishermen BP was signing up for the containment effort to agree to limit damage claims. Along with the apparently clueless effort to get these hardworking, simple and sympathetic folk (you have seen Captains Courageous, A Perfect Storm and Deadliest Catch, haven’t you?) to cough up records they never keep as a condition of compensation.

Worse yet, however, is CEO Hayward’s decision last week to head off on a Reputation-Wrecking Tour. I’m certain that I did not read an interview in the Guardian that quoted him as insisting that the oil spill was “tiny” in the midst of a “very big ocean,” and that it wouldn’t affect offshore drilling. I couldn’t possibly have seen him on Fox News declaring “the overall impact of this will be very, very modest.”

These statements may true. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t completely tone deaf. I guess it could have been worse: he could have claimed to have served in Vietnam or done a public pole dance.

The oil giant’s big boss, whose job is said to be on the line after the accident undid several years of efforts to repair BP’s shoddy safety record, repeatedly says he will “be judged by the nature of the response.”

He meant operationally. Tony, if only it were that simple.

Unfortunately, as Hayward should know as well as anyone, the world has entered the Sustainability Age. A global army of social investors and other “stakeholder” representatives—as influential in the boardroom as they are in the media—has every industry but especially energy under a microscope, with environmental issues center-stage and attitude just as scrutinized as performance.

“Tiny” is not a word this crowd is going to want to see associated with a 9100-square-mile slick.

But given the bad facts closing in on the helpless and seemingly hapless Mr. Hayward—and his increasingly and bafflingly brain-dead public performance—it’s one I would associate with his chances of maintaining his job.

Bob Maistros was the chief writer for the Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign, a former Senate subcommittee counsel and a longtime public relations advisor for companies ranging from AOL to MTV to XM Satellite Radio. He now offers biting satire based on insights gathered at the front lines of headline-making corporate crises, political contests and the culture wars.