New York Times weighs in on crisis PR–will the hypocrisy never end?

August 23, 2010

First it was the Washington Post who declared that the high-priced crisis PR folks were out of their league when it came to crises like BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs. I gave my opinion about that bit of silly reporting earlier. But the article this weekend in New York Times really takes the cake.The overall message seems to be that the reputation problems that BP, Toyota and Goldman all now presumably share were if not fully preventable by more competent PR, they certainly wouldn’t be in as bad a shape as they are. (Again, full disclosure, I count both BP and the US Coast Guard among my valued clients.)

As “evidence” of BP’s bad reputation the NYT’s reporter Peter S. Goodman provides an egregious but typical example of the kind of reporting done by Rolling Stone referring here to Goldman: “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Let’s see, what kind of invectives might this kind of reporter use against BP: “A giant radioactive death cloud dripping oil and toxins on innocent families below, skillfully and malevolently directed by a foreign cabal intent on sucking the very life blood out of the American way of life.”

Let me ask you, how would your reputation hold up to that kind of treatment? What if every newspaper and TV station in the land were clambering over each other, competing to see how bad they could make it to attract the biggest possible audiences to get the ratings that would let them charge their exorbitant advertising rates? And how would your reputation withstand the withering attacks of politicians like the representative from Massachusetts who see an opportunity to lead the parade of public outrage by heaping on scorn and new legislation? And what if the holder of the highest office of the land, intent on protecting his electoral future, makes certain that the news media blame game is focused on the “Responsible Party” rather than the government?

My point is this: It is the news media today, operating in a hyper competitive environment, that is one of the most important factors in the damage to reputations we see. For them to observe as both DeBord in the Washington Post and Goodman in the New York Times have done that the “spin” of public relations professionals has failed these organizations is hypocritical and ludicrous. It is a little like a guy standing next to a train track in the aftermath of a horrific head-on collision saying, someone could have prevented this, when he has just pulled the lever that put the trains on collision course.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming the news media for the mess of BP, Toyota or Goldman. In fact it is my firm belief as I have previously stated, that some events are beyond PR. As my colleague Tim O’Leary says, there is only so much lipstick you can put on a pig. When you spill a few thousand or hundred million gallons of oil in the Gulf or practically anywhere, and you can’t stop it for months while the public looks over your shoulder, that is a mighty ugly pig. The best PR in the world is not going to fix it.

And don’t get me wrong about there being no mistakes. Of course BP made mistakes. Nothing like the mistake that led to the explosion and spill and then the “mistake” of not preparing better to contain an event that exceeded their worst case scenario planning. But the focus on the statements like “I want my life back” is just ludicrous, as if Tony Hayward singularly caused the reputation crash of BP by casually making himself the victim. Give the guy a break. If you had cameras stuck on you 24/7 in the worst days of your life, would you say something stupid too Mr. Goodman? BP’s public relations team and advisors made a mistake in allowing Mr. Hayward to be accessible 24/7 which enabled him to say things that minimized the spill or conveyed that he too wanted the spill done with. But, here’s the dilemma–if they hadn’t they (the media) would complain about the absent CEO, if they allowed it, which they did or he insisted, they run the risk of making a comment that the media will use to hang him and the company with.

I find the comments of Mr. Rubenstein referring to BP particularly troublesome: “It was one of the worst P.R. approaches that I’ve seen in my 56 years of business,” says Mr. Rubenstein. “They tried to be opaque. They had every excuse in the book. Right away they should have accepted responsibility and recognized what a disaster they faced. They basically thought they could spin their way out of catastrophe. It doesn’t work that way.” Mr. Rubenstein’s problem is that he’s been reading the New York Times to get his news. He should have been looking at what BP and the coordinated response was doing and saying rather than letting the media “spin” the story for him. From the very beginning BP accepted responsibility, said it was their spill, said they would compensate all legitimate claims, said they would do all they could to stop it, said they would communicate. They did.

As evidence of opaque communication two examples are continually provided: the inaccurate initial spill volume estimate and the fact that in front of Congress BP indicated they were not the only ones to blame. Giving the initial estimate was a mistake–it was a mistake not just made by BP but by Unified Command. Remember, that number was provided by the Federal On-Scene Coordinator speaking for the government and all agencies. The number no doubt came from BP. It was the best estimate they had at the time and it was wrong. What Doug Suttles said later as reported in the Times-Picayune was that what he said when he provided that number was that the number didn’t matter because they were treating the spill as if the volume was unlimited. In other words, there was no scaling of response to the estimated volume. It was all hands on deck to get it stopped with nothing held back and every bit of oil clean up equipment possible was called on. What he should have said when pressed for a number–and here is the lesson for crisis communications in the future–is similar to what Mayor Giuliani said when pressed for an estimate of those killed on 9/11 when the buildings were still falling. Suttles should have said, “We don’t know, we can’t know for certain, but whatever it is is, it is more than we can bear.”

Now, if he said that, what would the media (and Mr. Rubenstein) have said? “You’re being opaque, you’re hiding information, your trying to minimize.” The fact is the response leaders including all gov agencies required an estimate, BP provided their best based on the info they had, Unified Command communicated that to the world, and in the media spin that followed it simply proved how inept and evil BP really was and is.

The other complaint is that BP tried to duck blame. Evidence for this is their testimony to Congress. I challenge you to show me one public statement that BP ever made disowning their responsibility for this event. The truth is that in an event like this there are undoubtedly many complex causes–it is not one single failure. They will be able to point to a whole number of things that if someone had chosen to do something different, the outcome would have changed. If the valve controlling the ram that would pincer off the riser had been manufactured better, or designed better. If a third or fourth or fifth backup emergency shutoff system had been put in place. If alarms had been handled differently, if, if, if. There are more companies involved than BP and more people involved than work for BP. That is the truth. It will take the next 10 years to determine all the liability and where it falls. It would be stupid for BP to hand over to the lawyers of those who also may be liable all the fodder they need to make an open and shut case. So while BP has clearly accepted responsibility and is focusing on cleaning it up, they also have to keep in mind that the courts will make a final determination on cause. An intelligent, responsible media would point this dilemma and problem out. But such nuanced reporting doesn’t create compelling headlines needed to get eyes on the page and advertising rates up.

Once again, I am in agreement with Eric Dezenhall, even though I think the reporter seemed to miss his point. Dezenall said in the NYT article: “The two things that are very hard to survive are hypocrisy and ridicule,” Mr. Dezenhall says. “It’s the height of arrogance to assume that in the middle of a crisis the public yearns for chestnuts of wisdom from people they want to kill. The goal is not to get people not to hate them. It’s to get people to hate them less.”

The public–in a very broad generalization–hates BP. But they hate Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Citgo and all the rest. These companies and the people who run them are the poster children for planet despoilers. They are fouling our atmosphere, causing global warming, forcing us to buy SUVs to take them to the next protest rally. The public’s hypocrisy in their animosity to these companies is of course too obvious to comment on. I have complained for years at the terrible job the oil industry has done in addressing this public sentiment. But when you do something like spill an almost endless amount of oil into a body of water terribly important to fish and people, it is not going to make people like you or the industry any better. When you add the kind of coverage we have seen on this spill–coverage based on competition for eyes–it heaps on the outrage.

So what does this mean for crisis communication of the future?

I’ll repeat my old mantra: Trust is based on two things–do the right things and communicate about them well.

BP did the wrong thing by whatever they did to contribute to this event happening. That is done. What they can do now that they have finally stopped the leak, is continue to do all they can to clean it up and make it right with the people they have harmed. They are doing that and I’m confident they will continue to do that. And they need to communicate well. They need to make certain the world and the American people know what they are doing. In communicating that, they have some very significant obstacles–the media and the politicians who use the media for their own agendas. In my mind (and since I do some work for them I have so advised them) they need to be much, much more agresssive in challenging the kind of coverage that we have seen. They need to correct the facts and mis-information, and challenge the spin that media reports put on the bare facts of this response.

Will it end their reputation problems? Heck no. At best what they can look for is earning the respect of the millions of people in the Gulf that they are working with closely day to day. From that almost one-on-one trust and relationship building, the world will begin to see that there are good people here, doing their best to make things right.

Communicating well in this era of hyper-competitive major news outlets is increasingly going direct with your message. When BP began to advertise nationally that the public could get information directly from the deepwaterhorizonresponse.com website, it was a smart thing to do. It doubled the website traffic overnight. It was smart because people going direct for information had a different view than those who only got their info from the media. However, the value of this was minimized for BP when the Unified Command communication’s became a platform for White House talking points and the primary talking point was that BP was only doing what they were doing because of a boot on their neck.

Crisis communication of the future is going to be increasingly technology-driven and increasingly direct. The event website, social media channels, live video feeds, 24/7 “broadcasting” from the response will be the primary means by which the public gets its information. Sure, bloggers will spin the information according to their agendas and all news outlets will be recognized as the same as bloggers. The communicators for the response will not allow rumors, misinformation, Rolling Stone-type hyperbole to go unchallenged. The communication channels provided by the responders will be a place of lively public debate about the truth. And those providing the information will be committed above all to credibility, to being believed, to provided the unvarnished truth regardless of its damage to them. The news outlets, desperately fighting for audiences, will have a hard time creating salacious headlines in that kind of truth-filled environment.

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4 Responses to “New York Times weighs in on crisis PR–will the hypocrisy never end?”

  1. Jimmy Jazz Says:

    I read the article you talk about and am considering a post for what this means for local govts.

    I don’t disagree with your contention that the media is partly culpable, and that disasters are disasters, no spin will cure that.

    The thing that I found interesting — and valuable — about this article is that this is reality. The media will jump on situations beyond our control and drag us through the mud. I read this article as a great “lessons learned” document for crisis communicators. I finished it and said to myself, “this is what can happen, this is what they will do.” And then I started to rethink our crisis comms plan. Railing against it is cathartic only in our heads.

  2. Irv Lipp Says:

    Would very much like to support your comments on HP and NYTimes article on Crisis Management.

    First, for HP…the ethics standard cannot be diminished in any way. The Chairman/CEO must maintain the ethics standards for the company.

    For BP in particular, Toyota to some extent and Goldman a little, the crisis had to end, first. BP had few options until the oil stopped. Toyota had to prove the cars were safe and commit to safety.

    BP focused on stopping the oil. Unfortunately, it was clear that BP and the entire oil industry had no clue as to how to stop a deep water oil spill. That’s a black mark for the entire industry. They all had the same NON-plan on file. The industry should be taken to task, not just BP.

    The Unified Command and the Joint Information Command were textbook, but again, the problem was no plan to work from at any time. The magnitude overwhelmed the textbook.

    With this impact, public relations actions had little chance. And, when unfortunate comments hit the networks, an inferno of messages burned BP’s reputation.

    Given no response plan, an overwhelmed textbook and a community on fire, the best action is respond to local needs as best as possible, clean up the mess and stop the spill. THEN and only THEN make actions your voice.

    As a society, we have no option but to use gasoline. We need the oil industry, but the industry has lost our trust. Perhaps leading the nation to a new energy policy would help regain some trust for the industry.

    Actions by BP now and all of the industry will only regain the trust. During the gushing Deepwater Horizon, gaining or regaining trust was not possible. And, anyone who thought it possible just didn’t understand the events.

    BP and Toyota both have weathered the storm. Now is the time for communications and the only communications can be ACTION.

    (For full disclosure, I worked several months with BP on the Gulf Coast.)

  3. J.D. Says:

    Interesting insights as usual, Gerald. I have a slightly different angle with my “beef” with the media, which was part of the my quote in the NYT piece. And that is this:

    When the recovery happens and when companies do “recover” well — those stories rarely get reported at all. When they do, they typically don’t balance the previous “human toll” angles with the new “human benefit” profiles.

    In tragedy, media profiles the human impact. In recovery, media reports the statistics.

    (Damn, I wish I used THAT quote with Goodman.)


  4. […] 26 Update:  Gerald Baron and The Arthur Page Society Blog have both provided commentary on the article in The New York […]


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