Tuesday, May 25, 2010

British Petroleum: Why can't they say they are sorry and trying to make sure it will never happen again? by Bob Sutton

BP: Why can't they say they are sorry and trying to make sure it will never happen again?

As I read The new York Times and Wall Street Journal every day, I ended-up reading BP's huge "Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Response" ad twice today.  I suspect it was written by their legal department, as there are things it does not contain that really bug me and will bug others and -- by the way, are bad crisis management, if you believe the best studies on what leaders can do to protect the reputation and long-term financial performance of their firms when the shit hits the fan (I talk about some of this research here and in links within it).
1. There is not a hint of human compassion, it is cold, carefully crafted language. It simply lists facts, it offers no sympathy to the people who died, none to those whose livelihoods will be affected, and none about the animals who are dying.  The language is utterly without a hint of warmth or empathy for anyone.  This gives me the creeps and I believe reinforces the perception they are a cold heartless company with executives who care about no one but themselves.
2. There is not a hint of an apology or admission of mistake.  The language is very indirect and legalistic. They say: "BP has taken full responsibility for dealing with the spill.  We are determined to do everything we can to minimize impact.  We will honor all legitimate claims."  Perhaps they can't apologize or admit error, but look at research on executives and firms that weather crises more effectively (a great example is Maple Leaf Foods, see the CEOs apology). Researchers who study errors or setbacks have shown that the problem with this strategy of pointing fingers at others and not accepting blame is that when you talk as if you are a hapless victim of a problem caused by others or by forces that no one can control (as BP seems to be doing), you also are seen as lacking the power to fix it.... it amplifies the perception that you are out of control and don't know what you are doing.
3. Finally, and this is also consistent with research on how to deal with a crisis or failure, I see not even a hint in this statement that BP is doing everything (or anything) within its power to learn from this horrible spill so that it is unlikely to ever happen again, and if it does, so they will be able to respond more quickly and effectively next time. This kind of language and attitude is crucial for both perceptual and objective reasons.   From a perceptual standpoint, it conveys more compassion and also that all those people and animals will not have suffered in vain.   From an objective standpoint, clearly, there are many lessons from this fiasco, and any competently ran company learns from mistakes -- indeed, I think all of us wonder what they might already be doing differently in their many other drilling platforms.  I think that talking about that would help them.
There is plenty of blame to go around here, and I am sure that BP does not deserve all of it.  But I think they could handle both the optics and objective elements of this crisis far more effectively (And I wonder if in the end the lawyers' advice will cost them more money, as so many politicians and prosecutors will be motivated by their heartless response to go after them with special vehemence).
No doubt, there are many facts I don't know about what is really happening.  But these omissions disturb me and, if you are a leader, you might want to use this as an opportunity to think about how you would handle such a PR nightmare if it hit your organization.  It is a lot cheaper and easier to learn from BP's errors than it your own.

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