Archive for May, 2010

BP oil slick not so slick – Take advice from a duchess

Three crises are bubbling away at the moment: the BP oil slick that has incurred the wrath of a US president, the Duchess of York’s latest foot in mouth episode, and the continuing BA crisis.

It’s a mystery to me why people at the very top of their worlds (and you can’t get much higher up the oil world than BP) fail to see common sense. When a crisis happens, you cannot hope to survive it with your reputation intact if you use weasel words. Yes, there will be some circumstances in which it is genuinely unclear who is to blame. But if you are responsible you must put up your hands and fess up – immediately. If you are in a group or consortium (or whatever else, tightly bound or loosely formed), you must do this together. Passing the buck will never, ever work in your favour.

Those of us who can remember the first Mandelson episode will not need to be persuaded. He denied and denied and denied but, much later, had to own up – by which time he had lost all credibility. While he is perhaps our most successful come back kid, very few people take him seriously. He is seen as a bit of a rogue, perhaps with an endearing quality, but he’s not someone you would trust with the truth. When he recently pronounced on the importance of propriety in parliament, there can be very few of us who didn’t snigger at his bare-faced cheek.

So why do we keep on hoping that denying is the right way out? By putting the blame on Transocean, Tony Hayward of BP made a catastrophic error. He looked weak and untrustworthy and he made BP look weak and irresponsible. At the very least, he should have teamed up with Transocean to show that they would work together to stop the flow of oil, investigate the cause and deal with its symptoms. Instead, he chose equivocation and he passed the buck. He now has President Obama breathing down his neck (cleverly saying that the buck stops with him) and a damaged personal reputation that will affect his career prospects whenever he leaves BP, which may be sooner than he hoped given the consequence of his inactions and denials. As for BP’s reputation, that continues to be denigrated with families of the 11 people who died in BP’s other crisis (the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig which then sank, causing the oil leak) saying that today’s memorial service for those who died was no more than a show.

Fergie gets it right

Meanwhile, Fergie, for all her clumsiness and lack of business nous, knew exactly how to attempt to salvage whatever reputation she might have. And for her, the most important consequence of her foot-in-mouth proneness is her status with HM The Queen, her ex-husband The Duke of York and her daughters (all of whose good will she needs, not to mention their financial support). Also of importance, again for status and money, she needs to minimise the impact it might have on her future earning power among commercial sponsors.

So, apologising for a lapse of judgement was the right thing to do. And she did it swiftly. While you could argue that she had no choice (a recording of her grandiose claims was the strongest evidence possible) she could have argued she was duped or joshing or … it matters not. Her immediate apology and admission of failure minimised the size of the potential fuss that followed. The fact that she has done this before, following the same yes-I-did-it policy, and will no doubt do it again, has done her much less harm than if she had wriggled and fudged. In that sense, her behaviour is exemplary.

BA spin keeps spinning

As for BA, at last the media is beginning to look beyond the corporate spin. Until now, only The Guardian dared to see through the BA corporate comms department’s puffery, putting across the crew’s case in a considered and measured way. Others simply ignored it or paid lip service to it, perhaps publishing a batch of letters from crew without adding any editorial comment (as did the paper I read), as if to say “we have to publish this for balance but we think it’s a load of old rubbish”. If any rubbish is being strewn about, it is by BA.

With a corporate history that includes the raid on Virgin’s computers, as sanctioned by the BA board, BA’s reputation is becoming more and more tarnished. It’s a splendid example of what not to do. But don’t think you can get away with the same approach. It takes generations to build the sort of relationships BA has with the media – and if you betray those relationships, as BA has done, who knows what wrath might follow (when those journalists see they have been duped).

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Gordon Brown gets it right

This is nothing to do with political balance (an earlier blog recommended you take advice from David Cameron). It has everything to do with getting it right. Not even his worst enemies could fault Gordon Brown on the way he handled the personal crisis he faced at the very bitter end of his prime ministership.

Forced to hang on while the Lib Dems played off one party against another, he decided enough was enough and he was off. No one should hang on like grim death to anything but not having the courage to take decisive action is what makes so many crises turn into dramatic disasters. He was right to leave and pronto – as soon as it became clear there was no chance of a Lib-Lab coalition. The next question to deal with was how.

What puts most people off making decisions is fear of the consequences but these can be managed – if you anticipate what they might be. For Gordon Brown, the consequences were no longer about his political life and reputation; they were over. They were about salvaging respect (for himself and for his wife and family) so he could build a new life. Having already declared that he and Sarah did not want to seek roles in business (though I bet a few well-paid consultancies creep in) but that they wanted to make a contribution through voluntary work, he needed to look and sound like a charitable fellow.

By making a speech that put his role as husband and father centre stage in his life, he instantly softened the tough, out of touch image the public had built up of him. But then what? Leaving by the front door of No 10 and walking down Downing Street in full public glare takes a lot of courage when the nation has rejected you. To do so with his two small sons, looking like a normal family man, was a masterstroke. The risk was that he could be accused of exploiting his children for his own ends but seeing such a happy family of four, all joined by holding hands, the adults sharing a joke or offering an explanation to the boys – just as so many mums and dads do – put him firmly in the warm, everyday world that charities work so hard to achieve.

We saw for the first time (well, for the first time since his daughter Jennifer died) a human being with vulnerabilities, modesty, humour and respect for others – an all round good egg.  And that’s exactly what he needed to show.

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