Another gaffe from the BP gaffer

Never ad lib. Not during a crisis. It’s a golden rule. Another is not to speak of personal feelings unless they relate to the people who have been affected by the disaster. If Tony Hayward’s comment “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” was in his script, he was either given bad advice, or he ignored good advice, or he spoke off the cuff. We may never know which – but my suspicion is that it was a spur of the moment comment. It missed the mark.

And he did it again. After making a very sensible statement in his first sentence: “It’s right that I should be the lightning rod because it allows everyone else to get on with their jobs.” he wrecked it by adding un-chosen words: “I’ve got a pretty thick Kevlar jacket and I’m so far unscathed. No one has actually physically harmed me. They’ve thrown a few words at me, but I’m a Brit. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

As anyone who has ever been involved in crisis management knows, exhaustion and pressure take their toll. Adrenaline kicks in but it only serves to keep you going; it does not help maintain rational thought. That’s why businesses have crisis management plans: prepared in calm times, away from unusual pressures, measured, tempered, rounded – and to be followed. Of course, even the best plan will need to be adapted but, if it is well-crafted, it will convey the tone that should be maintained, reminding those under pressure not just of what they should say but also how to say it. Mid-crisis is not the time to deviate wildly; if your plan is sound, all that’s needed is a little adaptation.

As for expressing your feelings, the feelings that matter are those you have for the people who have been affected. If yours is a genuine response, it will be etched on your face. Likewise, if you are being disingenuous it will show. Remember Putin appearing after the Polish air crash? There was no doubting the sincerity of his feelings or the gravity with which he was taking his role. He didn’t quip about being dragged away from his everyday life – or brag about being so thick-skinned that it wouldn’t touch him.

It is incredibly easy to drop your guard when you are under relentless pressure. It is also easy to get ratty, curmudgeonly, annoyed at yet another barbed comment or sniping question. The temptation to wrap up questions, interviews or press conferences with neat one-liners or self-deprecating jokes, will be huge. Don’t. At the risk of repeating myself, repeat yourself by sticking rigidly to your script.

I feel sorry for Tony Hayward. His performance at his conference call with analysts showed him to be absolutely on top of his brief as CEO. He is, like all of us, prone to being human and dropping his guard was his failure. Now his future looks bleak and his present even bleaker. He will feel overwhelmed, shattered, worried, displaced, under attack and, probably, rather alone. If ever there was a time for him to to learn his lines, this is it.

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