BP CEO: Communications Failure

UPDATE: June 17. CEO Tony Hayward is live giving Congressional testimony that will probably go down as equal to the Mark McGwire disaster. He has said, "I wasn't involved in any of the decision making," and "I don't know" countless times. Congress, led by a hostile Henry Waxman, seemed incredulous. This whole Gulf oil disaster is a terrible tragedy on a deeply personal level for millions of people - in the U.S., and also in England where BP is a key part of their economy. This Congressional testimony happening right now is a PR and communications disaster that continues. Both in content and in style. I guess it's not surprising from what might be expected from the following that was posted earlier:


I want my life back," wails BP Oil CEO Tony Hayward. Well, he really doesn't wail, but he might as well have. Leaders lead, they don't plead.

The BP Oil disaster on the Gulf Coast needs more than a good communicator, it is a terrible tragedy no matter who is at the helm. But BP does need a good communicator to make the best of an awful plight. Unfortunately, they have CEO Hayward, who has been his own worst enemy.

CEO's have to be ready to lead with authenticity - where one's perceived behavior as well as focus really counts. This CEO fails on both accounts.

Authenticity - what you say and how you say it

Hayward has been off from the beginning.  A month ago he appeared aloof - look at his manner in this clip (and above) at an early press conference.

I was appalled at his apparent smug and arrogant behavior. I don't know him, but if that's his natural style, I'm surprised he's CEO. Then again, this is a company that made $10 billion profit last quarter! So where were his advisors? Where were his coaches? Why wasn't he trained in advance so he knew how to act when the pressure was on. This was not the way.

"I Want My Life Back."

So here we have a multi-millionaire CEO 'wanting his life back' in the face of the families of 11 people killed on 'his' oil rig, and tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands who will lose their economic life because of his oil. OK, not 'his' oil, but he has to speak as if it's his oil. And he has not. What he did have to do was apologize for his remarks. The problem was, and is, we believe he meant it - that he cares only as it affects BP and himself.

Defense is not the best offense

Throughout these first 40 days of the disaster, Tony Hayward was the spokesperson - yet almost all of his statements smacked of defensiveness. First he says the effects will be very, very modest. More recently, in response to the fact that those cleaning the beaches were getting sick from evident oil fumes, he inferred that it could be "food poisoning!"

His appearances, and performances, were so bad that a national Cable News show ended their newscast with an editorial excoriating Hayward and saying, "Act like you care!"

It was just announced that Admiral Thad Allen will now make all the updates on the Gulf Oil disaster. (He's good by the way.) Although politics are no doubt also involved, it is not surprising that both BP and the administration wanted Tony Hayward off the air. He did nobody any good, particularly himself.

Lessons for us all

We will all be called upon to speak under pressure in important circumstances. Be prepared. It is not just the CEO's like Hayward that have to be ready, though the stakes might be higher in his case. It's all of us. In this video and social media age, we are all on television. If we don't know how we come across, and where our heart and our message is, we may be doomed to fail when it counts the most. And it doesn't have to be.

No doubt that Tony Hayward would like his life back. And I bet he'd like to start this communications experience over again - after maybe a heart check and a little training too.

6 thoughts on “BP CEO: Communications Failure
  1. I agree – Hayward is his own worst enemy in regard to what to say and what not to say – reminds me of the last presidential campaign. Although Admiral Allen admittedly is better, he’s almost the other extreme – maybe too robotic and too impersonal.
    I saw the Hayward “I want my life back” comment. While I winced for a second, I must admit I wasn’t that offended. I think he was being authentic – who wouldn’t want their life back? It was an unfortunate statement to come out of his mouth, but I don’t think it was meant to be cold and hurtful. I think he was speaking from an “I’m tired; I wish I had never hired on with BP; and I wish this wasn’t happening” approach. On any given day, I wouldn’t be shocked if any of our nationally elected officials or corporate CEOs wouldn’t feel the same way, although they hopefully know better than to say it in a public format.
    The whole situation is just extremely sad. As I grew up in that area of the country, it hurts even more.

  2. Thanks Susan. Good comments. The situation IS tragic, and you would think we would ‘feel’ that from the CEO. But no, and even in his scripted statement of apology today Hayward sounds, well, scripted.

  3. Watching the clips above, a few thoughts spring to mind.
    The first is that Tony Hayward is in the unenviable position of attempting to communicate with very different audiences using the same interviews. He has a public relations disaster on his hands – and needs to talk to the American people. But at the same time lawyers, bankers, analysts, and investors are listening to his every word. How emotional and ‘authentic’ can he allow himself to be in that situation? Presidential candidates have it easy in comparison.
    Second, given the amount of time he’s spent in front of the cameras, and the obvious lack of sleep he’s had, what could Tony Hayward do to ensure that he didn’t say something that could be used as a very damaging sound-bite in at least one interview? Heaven knows how political candidates manage it. To an extent, we get rather manufactured politicians precisely because a single slip of the tongue can ruin a campaign or a career.
    Third, as a Brit, I really don’t think that Tony Hayward actually comes across (to me) as inauthentic, or as if he doesn’t care. Far from it, actually. I think something has been lost in ‘cultural’ translation. Which suggests that BP are taking the right approach in allowing an American to front communication efforts from now on.

  4. Some things regarding crisis communications are difficult or almost impossible to prepare for. Having the worst environmental disaster on the planet is something that Hayward was probbly not prepared to deal with–no matter how much crisis training he had. There is no positive spin for the situation. Until the problem is resolved, BP’s communications team will continue to take a beating. They did do a good job of completely revamping their website to focus on the spill and have adopted some decent social media strategies. But again, until the leak is stopped this will continue to be a difficult communications situation for everyone involved.

  5. Joby and John,
    There is some culture bias, but with that being the case, BP should have had a designated prime spokesperson. They continue a PR disaster, and a big part of that is what Tony Hayward DOESN’T say, as much as what he says and how he says it.
    Yes there is no positive spin, but there are opportunities to have much better communications that would mitigate the PR disaster anyway. Won’t do much for the real disaster.

  6. BP’s Bob Dudley, who is a Mississippi native, seems to be managing the transition from Hayward well by saying he needs to listen. Here, here for listening!
    Meanwhile, as someone who grew up with big oil and baseball, I say umpire Jim Joyce who blew the perfect game with his bad call has done the best job of handling a crisis. (True, its scale is a baby blip compared to BP, but there are good lessons there, as I wrote in “Step Up to the Plate in a Crisis, https://leancommunications.com/?page_id=2.)
    Thanks for your insights, Bert!

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