August 20, 2010
Any leader will tell you that it’s impossible to spend much time in the public eye without saying something that you wish you hadn’t said. Usually the remark is quickly forgotten without long-term damage. Sometimes, however, an ill-chosen comment exacerbates a problem and takes on a seemingly endless shelf life.
Some people seem to have a way of finding the wrong words at the wrong time. But BP CEO Tony Hayward may have set a new standard in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.
A CEO needs to convey a number of things when a crisis causes death, economic harm or environmental damage (all of which were present in this crisis). Most important: CEOs must appear caring, contrite and responsible; words must be carefully chosen and actions must match the dialogue.
The worst mistake is to portray oneself as the victim. BP consistently took this approach, starting with Hayward’s comment in late May when he said, “I’d like my life back.”
But it’s possible that the CEO didn’t intend that remark in the way that the public perceived it. Before making that comment, Hayward said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do.” Hayward may have been trying to assure the public that he would do everything possible to stop the gushing oil and remedy the damage but, regardless of his intent, the word choice was disastrous.
Another critical mistake that executives make in a crisis is to minimize the damage. On May 14, Hayward declared, “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The . . .volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” Perhaps so, but that’s like saying that the amount of poison the murderess put into her husband’s tea was quite small.
Four days later, on May 18, the BP leader added, “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” This violates another crisis control rule: Don’t give a rosy forecast and pray that it comes true. Even if Hayward’s assessment had turned out to be true, pictures of oil-drenched birds, distressed fishermen and tarballs on beaches make his statement an untenable position.
Many leaders get into trouble by stating a hope or belief as “fact.” Hayward made this blunder on May 30: “The oil is on the surface. There aren’t any plumes.” Underwater pictures immediately circled the globe proving otherwise. Had Hayward preceded that comment with “I don’t believe . . .” then it would have been less damaging. He should have known the facts.
As if Hayward hadn’t stumbled enough, BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg made things worse. He declared that in Washington, D.C., contrary to public opinion, BP really cared about “the small people.” A lot of so-called small people didn’t like that one bit. It was another bad sound bite. Svanberg is Swedish, and English is his second language. Perhaps “small people” would not be considered a demeaning term in his native country.
Before the CEO makes any public appearance, he or she must carve out time for extensive training and rehearsal. During the training session, the PR staff will be able to spot and fix any inappropriate word choices and knowledge gaps about the subject at hand.
So, how can PR professionals keep their CEOs out of linguistic quicksand?
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. He is president of Virgil Scudder & Associates, based in Miami Beach, Fla.
Email: virgil at virgilscudder.com