How to Manage Crisis Most of us know (and certainly we in the industry do) that public relations is – hopefully – the maintenance of a favourable public image by an organisation or a famous person. It’s essentially a company’s interface with the public and that interface has to be, for all intents and purposes, positive. We all know, however, that the best laid plans can go pear-shaped. Paradoxically, when bad things happen, it’s probably where public relations firms really prove their worth as gatekeepers against the marauding press and court of public opinion, forever putting on a brave face and keeping positive amidst a maelstrom of negativity. Public relations, like any other industry, can be victim to unintended consequences. What seemed like a great idea at the time can come back and bite you very badly on the bum. So, in the spirit of admitting to our epic fails as an industry and alerting you, dear reader, to how we are only human, too, here is the first in a series of favourite PR cock-ups from recent history.
Disaster? What Disaster? A classic case of crisis management gone wrong was the response to BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It cost 11 lives and incalculable damage to the environment. BP’s bill for the disaster is $30 billion and climbing. Let’s talk about CEO as a brand. Boy, what did BP deserve to have Tony Hayward in the chair and face the public during its crisis? After initially accepting full responsibility for the spill and saying BP would clean up thoroughly and honour any legitimate claims for damages (straight out of the PR handbook for crisis management), Haywood proceeded to make blunder after blunder by just opening his mouth. In his first “mis-statement”, he told a reporter: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back”, Poor Tony. Then while the disaster was still raging, Tony showed he was true to his words. Getting his life back, Tony was photographed back in Britain on board his yacht during a corporate yacht race around the Isle of Wight. As the White House chief of staff Rahm Emaneul said, it was yet another in a “long line of PR gaffes” by Hayward. A quick lesson. Give chief executives a good, hard talk about human empathy and the need to be seen to be more concerned about others than you are about yourself in such situations – and don’t go yachting when your company is facing its biggest ever crisis. Despite the techniques that can be employed by PR to manage disasters such as this, they won’t be effective unless the person at the top leading the defence of his or her company is well briefed and trained. Some simple – if repetitive – lessons in how to front the media with a few easily digestible messages could have done much to protect the company’s reputation. In such cases, it’s impossible to come up smelling of roses, but it could stop you from being thrown out with the garbage. Failure to heed such simple advice was costly for Hayward and BP. The oil group faces total group losses of $30 billion, a figure no doubt escalated by disgruntled US legislators unhappy with Hayward’s public responses. And Hayward? We last heard of him merging his venture firm with Turkish oil interests to conduct operations in northern Iraq. Presumably, the chance of a competing in a yacht race there are slim. And this brings me to a topic for discussion next time, which will be ‘how trying to spin smoking deaths as having “positive effects” back-fired badly for a cigarette manufacturer.’ Watch this space! Article by Robert Turner, Shed Media