BP strolls to self-destruction

Its share price has plummeted, shaking shareholder confidence still further and threatening the UK economy. And it has faced attack from foes in many guises: Greenpeace scaled one of its buildings, unfurling a flag proclaiming it as British Polluters; its Twitter account was hijacked (though the offending Tweet was removed after about 30 minutes); and the US president has promised a criminal prosecution if a criminal act has been committed.

And only now has it moved to take on a high-profile, ex-White House crisis communications expert to help it get some positive media coverage in the US. It also needs positive media coverage here.

The tragedy with the BP crisis is that it could have been so different. And that is the tragedy for every crisis when its management gets off to a bad start.

There are two unshakeable facts about crises. First, if a crisis is badly managed, the damage to the company’s reputation may far exceed the financial cost of the disaster. Secondly, businesses that communicate effectively during a crisis may win new credibility and higher levels of respect than they had before. So, yes, spending money on crisis management and crisis media management is essential – and it has to happen before any crisis starts.

I wonder if Tony Hayward has picked up the phone to the White House. He should have done – early on.  He should have been on Fourchon Beach, Louisiana, with the president, taking in the same view of the impending impact of the oil on the shore and pledging, to the world’s media as commanded by Obama, that BP would do all it could to stop the flow and rectify the damage. If he has been communicating with the White House and President Obama is refusing to say so, that is tough. Deciding whether to go public on this is a huge risk – but it is a risk worth taking. So, given that BP has not yet said it has spoken to the White House, we can only assume it hasn’t.

No wonder Obama has been able to run rings round BP. With a potential crisis on his hands, he took control – just as Tony Hayward should have done –dramatically emphasising how tarnished BP’s reputation now is and making it look slower, weaker, even more amateur.

The rules to follow to achieve good crisis management are very few, very simple – and very tried and tested. Companies that decide to do their own thing opt for self-destruction.

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