Like most PRs, I watch silently from the outside when any crisis story breaks, assessing how the company at the centre of it approaches communications, how the media reacts and what specific pressures the PR team is under.
And like most PRs, I’m typically left guessing afterwards as to exactly what went on, who called the shots, what external factors existed and what it was really like. It’s rare that the story inside the story comes out, and when it does it’s normally some time afterwards. It’s even rarer for the person running the afflicted company to tell the tale rather than the communications personnel.
Earlier this week former BP chief executive Tony Hayward lifted the lid on what it was like to be at the eye of the media storm surrounding the biggest story of 2010 – the Deepwater Horizon accident, oil spillage, environmental crisis, political football, untold stock devaluation, forced asset sale and his subsequent parting company with the company.
And it was fascinating. The incident saw 11 lives tragically lost and Mr Hayward villified by the press as the “most hated man in America“. My main interest was in the rationale behind how the media was handled, the extent to which the furure on social media fuelled decisions and what it was like waking up to all that each morning. But here’s a summary of the main things he revealed to an audience at Speed’s parent firm Loewy’s monthly Mandrake networking club on Tuesday evening:
How the media handled the story
In Mr Hayward’s view, media coverage of the accident and subsequent clean-up operation was “vicious”. This point was mainly levelled at the US media, which led with the story practically round the clock in the subsequent days and weeks. The appetite for information was insatiable. You’d expect this of course. He pointed out that there were apparent inaccuraies in some of the reporting, and inflated fears about the extent of the spillage and its impact on the Gulf coast. That’s to be expected too (lots of reporting in the conditional tense), but even so it fuelled public hysteria, and hysteria fuelled more hyteric reporting. “We were at war with the media every day. There’s no other word for it,” he said.
This was the first crisis of its magnitude in which both social and conventional media were in the mix. What was that like?
In his words, the “viral media” created an immense burden on the communication team, on top of the impossible-to-meet demands for information from conventional media. At its height there were 50 people at BP working around the clock purely on countering “inaccurate” information being posted on Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms. It was a social media storm the likes of which the world had never seen before and hasn’t seen since. For the team trying to manage it, the pressure was immense and the tide impossible to turn around.
How successful was the crisis communication?
Almost seems like a daft question doesn’t it? He volunteered that despite utmost efforts to communicate clearly, transparently and at breakneck pace, many mistakes were made. “What would I have done differently? I would have had more of the senior team around me to handle communication with the media.” While the person in overall charge of the business should face the media music, that music is now so loud and persistent that one man alone cannot handle it.
I also asked him, tongue in the general cheek area, about how the value of the £5 million apparently spent by BP on crisis PR with much-criticised financial agency Brunswick was assessed. The question didn’t get a direct answer, but he said that one of the main comm
unications lessons learned for all large corporations was that plans for crises such as these must be made and tested regularly. BP wasn’t sufficiently well prepared with communications processes and resources to handle what happened, and it showed. It was an unprecedented incident, but better planning was needed. I find it difficult to disagree with that point.
Do people try to attack him in the street?
Actually the polar oppposite, apparently. He said most people in the UK shake his hand and say they believe the media coverage and US Government’s intervention was over the top, while he told of a visit to New York City late last year when Americans approached him to say much the same.
What happened at The White House?
Not an awful lot more revealed on this point, beyond a brief sense of what it was like to sit opposite the President and be told you’d better cough up $20 billion or there’d be further implications. Cash or check?
And did the UK Government help?
In his words, “Amazingly, truly helpful. They could not have done more.” The impression was that the Government had bent overbackwards to help one of the biggest UK-listed firms at its darkest hour, ever-willing to jump on a quick conference call with the chaps across the pond.
What else did BP learn?
Lots of things, obviously. But one standout point was the need to ensure expectations are managed when the entire world is watching. This referred specifically to the ongoing efforts to cap the leak on the sea bed, during which the understanding of the degree of testing and due process required to be successful wasn’t nurtered as it could have been. That led to most people assuming that BP was throwing the kitchen sink (not literally, obviously) at the hole in desperate bids to plug it, rather than had a clear and proven process for successful resolution.
Proven process was something that came up several times during the hour-long talk and question session. Deepwater Horizon had never happened before, and so there was no way of either predicting it or mapping out clear plans for dealing with it to a zero error margin. But better process was clearly required in the areas of the business highlighted – including communications and media handling - and could have stopped events spiralling to the extent that they did.
It was the mother of all ways to pinpoint that the people at the very top of businesses need to be not only in the media glare in the event of a crisis, but that they must make communication capabilities and process part of the organisation’s lifeblood at all times.