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Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Monday, 21 June 2010 12:39 UK

BP's gift for the gaffe

BP's Tony Hayward
BP's chief executive Tony Hayward has been under fire

By Denise Winterman
BBC News

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been made worse for BP by the public-relation gaffes of those in charge of the company. A few misplaced words can cause a lot of damage, so why are they getting them so wrong?

There's a chronic foot-in-mouth outbreak at BP and it doesn't look like it will be clearing up anytime soon.

Chief executive Tony Hayward has already been dubbed "wayward Hayward" by the media for his gaffes when speaking about the company's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Even when he says very little, he gets it all wrong. Facing US politicians in Washington last week he was repeatedly criticised for dodging questions. One frustrated congressman accused him of "just kicking the can down the road like you have nothing to do with it".

"The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean" - Tony Hayward
"There's no one who wants this over more than I do - I would like my life back" - Tony Hayward
"We care about the small people" - Carl-Henric Svanberg

He's not the only one at BP to be struck down by the complaint. Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg also attracted criticism last week when he referred to those affected by the spill as "the small people". He apologised, saying his words were "clumsy".

Crises are unpredictable, but they are not unexpected. A good company prepares for the unexpected and a good PR team is poised to do damage limitation. So why is BP getting it so wrong?

"BP's communication over the oil spill has often been inexplicable and at times simply shocking," says Sharon Francis, chief executive of Media First, specialists in communication training.

"You'd think those in charge of one of the world's biggest companies would know better than most that one stupid comment travels round the world in a nanosecond.


"BP was slow reacting to what happened and failed to express appropriate concern and compassion, which is vital. As a consequence, any apology now just seems hollow."

BP initially appeared to understate the extent of the situation, with Mr Hayward saying the spill would not be a major problem because the gulf was "a very big ocean". Big mistake. Contrition and reparation are called for, says Professor Stephen Brammer, who lectures on corporate reputation at Bath University.

"Say you are sorry as quickly as you can and tell the world what you are doing to put things right," he says.

Residents affected by oil spill
Show empathy with those affected

Often over reaction is what's needed, not trying to play things down. In 1982 seven people in Chicago died after taking poisoned Tylenol tablets. Johnson & Johnson reacted quickly, including a huge US-wide recall of the product - some 31 million bottles - at an estimated cost of $100 million.

"A nationwide recall probably wasn't needed, but it showed that the company was putting protecting the public above profit," says Mr Brammer.

It's also crucial to express empathy and that you understand the people affected. So far Mr Hayward's biggest gaffe has been saying he wanted the crisis to end so he could have his "life back". He later apologised and said the remark had been "hurtful and thoughtless", especially to the families of the 11 men who died when the well exploded.

"No one cares how the crisis is personally affecting the life of the head of BP," says Prof Brammer. "Getting his life back probably means being able to drop his kids off at school again or take his wife out for dinner. It was a stupid thing to say when he is dealing with such a catastrophe."

This series of public-relation gaffes meant Mr Hayward reportedly received intensive training for his appearance before addressing US politicians at a Congressional hearing in Washington last week. It didn't help, say critics.

'Filed away and forgotten'

He was accused of dodging questions, the assumption being that he had been briefed by BP's lawyers not to accept any responsibility. But that doesn't mean you simply shut down, says Mr Brammer.

"Trying to dodge things is ridiculous, it's never a good reputation-management strategy. Even when you do not want to accept responsibility, you can distinguish between the legal and the moral. It is never good to use the legal mechanism to prevent discourse."

Media consultants say BP has also suffered hugely because it has too few Americans leading its communications strategy. This has been extremely costly because Britain and America may speak the same language, but they use it very differently.

Tony Hayward's yacht at the Isle of Wight boat race

"BP's communication has been done in a very British way, it has been very self-deprecating," says Ms Francis. "Americans don't deal in such language, they don't see themselves as 'little people' - they are a can-do culture."

So why did a such a big company get it so wrong? Most companies have strategies in place to deal with a crisis, say communication consultants. But that's not enough, they should have regular "risk audits" to make sure plans are up to date and not just "filed away and forgotten".

It's also shouldn't have a one-size-fits-all approach.

"I think that has been BP's downfall," says Ms Francis. "Situations vary and companies should adapt, like getting American PR people in to help in the case of BP."

So is there any way back for BP? Possibly, but it will take years of the right action and words.

"It's going to be facing a reputation issue for years, but it is possible to rebuild things," says Jonathan Hemus, crisis-management expert with Insignia communications. "Other companies should look and learn from all of this."

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