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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

BP Ignored Lessons From The Past

Honestly, at this point is there anything BP can do to even remotely repair its deeply tarnished image resulting from the horror in the U.S. Gulf Coast?

The unnatural disaster is now more than 50 days old with environmental  ramifications that will persists for decades to come.  Like the war in Afghanistan and the on going challenge in Iraq, news of the the oil spill disaster along the Gulf Coast has fast become part of our daily lives.  The images of injured wildlife and interviews with business owners whose lives depend on the bounty from the Gulf waters appear daily on the 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. news broadcasts and all over the net. 

For most of us, the disaster is emotionally close but physically distant.  But for too many Americans, the oil spill is personally and professionally disruptive -- and with a long road until the finish line.

The massive oil slick  is one disaster.  And is one, it seems, that could have been prevented.

The way BP has handled the situation from a communications perspective is yet another disaster.  Also, it is one that could have been prevented from at least spiralling out of control.

You'd think that the brightest minds at BP would have known to not repeat the communications mistakes made by the many global brands whose own disasters preceded BP's.  BP had its pick.  There's the chapter on FEMA and Katrina.  Or the chapters on Tyco and EnronBarry Bonds or the Catholic Church.  And perhaps the grand daddy of them all -- Exxon Valdez.

The list goes on and on.  The lessons are there, in black and white.

The latest communication on BP's web site, appearing just today, is that the company is going to donate the net revenue from the oil it recovers from the Mississippi Canyon 252 oil well to restore the environment and habitats in the Gulf Coast region.

And if you don't think that fulfills BP's commitment to repair the damage done by the oil spill, well, you're wrong.  Because, as BP adds on its site, "The creation of this fund is over and above BP's obligations under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990."

That's right. The establishing of the fund is "over and above" what the law says BP must do in the wake of the accident.  Wow. Talk about a failure to communicate.

BP continues to communicate to the world about one of the the world's largest unnatural disasters on its own terms.  Even though the global world of communications professionals is at its disposal and almost begging to assist a brand that is sinking like a stone. 

What's past is past.  But if BP chose to listen, here are five ways -- from among many more -- it might have protected the brand it has been building for 100 years:
  • Present an objective and honest assessment of the situation as soon as they had a good measure on things.  Tell the world this is a first for BP and the oil industry at-large and that they are unsure if known methods of plugging a massive oil leak will work in this particular situation.
  • Don't create false expectations.  Tell the world a number of proven and untested techniques will be deployed and that the outcome, due to the uniqueness of the situation, is uncertain.
  • Keep the lawyers at arm's length. While liability is certainly an important consideration, the company also has to think about its long term reputation and the viability of the organization.  It's not just about getting through the crisis at hand but is also about reputation recovery and sustainability.
  • Put out as much information for public consumption as possible and not only the information the company wishes to control.  Transparency will earn trust over time. Most people can see spin coming from a mile away.
  • Instead of insisting on CEO Tony Hayward as the primary crisis spokesperson, solicit the support of a trusted, honest communicator who would be perceived as more objective than a company executive drenched in the company's stock. 

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