BP just can’t help itself – the world agrees

Once you are on a downward spiral it’s impossible to turn round and go up. At least that’s how it is for poor, beleaguered BP.

Not only is its CEO, Tony Hayward, gaffe prone; so is its chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg. Self-deprecating humour that isn’t understood in the US, is one thing. To refer to people affected by the oil gushing into the Gulf as “small people” is another. Of course we know what C-HS was trying to say: he meant ordinary citizens. It just didn’t come out right. But, with memories that go jogging back to Imelda Marcos calling her subjects “little people”, C-HS’s comment was more than an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

Meanwhile, blowing my own trumpet a bit, I got a call out of the blue on Wednesday – from the BBC World Service “World, Have Your Say” programme. They had seen this blog and read that I felt sorry for Tony Hayward. Would I be prepared to go on Thursday’s programme and talk for about 20 minutes? No! was my instant response. And that was no way to manage my own mini-crisis. Fortunately (for me) they persuaded me (a little flattery helped, I’m sad to admit) and suddenly I had to put into practice everything I preach. Starting with preparation, preparation, preparation.

I have a persuasive anecdote which I use in crisis media management training courses so I’ll save that for then. This example isn’t second hand.

You can’t do enough. Prepping takes hours. I’d been up late thinking about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to come across and was nowhere like ready. I spent the morning, thanks to a client changing our plans, honing points and fine-tuning back-up info to illustrate points. Thankfully, a colleague offered to cancel a meeting and, goodness, I needed that extra time. I chanted bits out loud, trying to set them in stone (or at least in grey matter). I typed notes in columns: points to make (far too many); what BP did wrong (a very long list); what BP did right (one thing); background info (yards). I edited. I added. I cut. I pasted back in. I researched some more. My palms became very sticky. I recited and recited as if I were going to appear on Broadway. I changed quickly (it was only radio but who might I bump into?) and I set off, collected by BBC taxi, intent on refining my three main points, my anecdotes, my extra bits – everything – on the way.

Stuck in no-moving traffic, a car next to ours had Radio 4 blaring a commentary on the cruel slaughtering of Tony Hayward by US journalists just before he faced the US Congress. Swotting notes became a lower priority; I listened to the latest – feeling even more sorry for this non-media-savvy guy.

I arrived just as the programme went on air – ie late. And I now have a second authoritative piece of advice to give. The first (irrelevant to me on radio) is: if you are appearing on a television programme and are offered make-up, accept. This is nothing to do with vanity; it is about recognising that the broadcaster knows its interviewees look better without shiny noses or peculiar complexions. And the second titbit is, if the programme asks if you’d like a taxi to pick you up, accept. Yes, in this era of austerity, publicly funded organisations need to cut back and I did feel guilty. But, as I found out, if you get stuck in traffic and arrive late, it helps if it’s not your fault. (And I took up the offer of a taxi home, too, and very glad I was as concentrating for an hour left me dazed and confused and I’m not sure I’d have made it to the tube.)

It was hard work but it was also a lot of fun. I was the only person in the studio; contributors spoke down the line from the US, India, Nigeria and the UK; opinion on the other side of the Atlantic is mostly poisonous – there is no hanging onto pride to bring a bit of balance; the newsreader slipped in and slipped out again like silk; I ran out of water and rather haughtily summoned some more – what a prima donna! – and I managed not only to keep my cool but also to say what I needed to say. More or less.

It feels a bit egotistical to say this but … you can catch the programme on BBC iPlayer for a week on one of these two links: http://ow.ly/1ZZu7 or

How did I do?  My crisis to manage was to ensure, as far as I could, that I would be seen to do what I advise my clients to do. I stumbled over one question (I’d never castigate a client about that; it’s a human reaction); I said “um” a couple of times (but not, I think, to an irritating extent); and I missed a couple of chances to make other points (but this was a roving discussion where mixed views mattered). Did I prepare three main points? Yes. Did I put them across? Yes. Did I have anecdotes for each? Yes. Did I use them all? No but that’s typical. Did I vary my pace and my voice enough to engage the audience? That’s for you to decide. Let me know what you think – all comments welcome and I’d rather have brutal honesty than polite fudge.

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