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:

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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.