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
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p0082kxs/p0082l0f/World_Have_Your_Say_17_06_2010

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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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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An unprepared duchess gets it so very wrong

Having praised Fergie for her hands-up-I-did-it response when she’d been caught selling her ex-husband’s influence, I must now put her in the getting it wrong category. It is good crisis management to do as she did at the start. It is bad crisis management to follow it up with an unprepared meander through a self-obsessed stream of consciousness, if consciousness it was.

This is where preparation becomes the point. No one should ever submit themselves to a media interview unless they are as sure as it is possible to be that they will not end up in submission. And being sure only comes after diligent preparation including rehearsals. Hoping for a sympathetic response by exposing an inner vulnerability just doesn’t cut it – especially if your reputation is already shaky.

There may be times when business leaders have to put themselves in the spotlight – and sometimes they will need to do so very speedily. Being prepared means anticipating the worst well in advance so that when it happens you are ready. There is no point in relying on a quick run through answers to possible questions while you are in the back of a cab on the way to the studio. That is not preparation; it is risky recklessness.

If you have a crisis management plan, well done. But when did you last shake off the dust on it and check through it, making sure both that it is up to date and that you are up to speed? And if you haven’t got one … be prepared for the sort of counter-attack Fergie has had today – lambasted around the world in newspapers, on radio and television, on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and surely not in only one blog …

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