Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Are some things just ‘unspinnable’?

The resignation, or removal, of Tony Hayward from the top job at BP prompts me to ask the question, are some things just unspinnable?

This is a difficult one for a PR man to answer. Those of us in PR tend to think that communication is the answer to everything, just as lawyers think that the legal system provides all the answers and accountants think that close perusal of the balance sheet, P&L and cash statement will tell you all you need to know.

In Hayward’s case there were PR gaffes which undoubtedly made the situation worse. Sailing in the Isle of Wight Round Island Race during the early days of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster and declaring that “I want my life back” were pretty crass things to do and say.

However, if you look at the circumstances that he was being forced to communicate in, I am not sure that anybody, regardless of nationality, demeanor or ability to deliver a sound-bite could have dealt with the media crisis that engulfed him.

Hayward was faced with an almost perfect storm. On top of an appalling environmental disaster, he was faced with communicating the facts of BP’s shocking safety record (if anyone deserves opprobrium heaped upon him it is Hayward’s predecessor Lord Browne, King of Cost Cutting to deliver shareholder value); a US President desperate to avoid comparisons with the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina; mid-term elections due in November which offered Senate investigating committees the opportunity to grandstand in front of the cameras, whilst all the time real-time TV footage showed oil spewing out of the well at an alarming rate.

Are any of us in PR saying we could have done any more than apply a slightly more effective sticking plaster to this gaping wound?

PS: One other point. I’m struggling to agree with those who are criticising BP for not “getting out in front of the story” when it came to announcing Hayward's departure. Rules is rules. Publicly quoted companies cannot just bring forward ‘announcements’ that Chief Executives are leaving because the media has got a sniff of something. The very earliest this announcement could have been made was 0700 Monday morning. Leaving it for another 24 hours might look a bit lackadaisical but let’s face it, as corporate reputation goes, there is not much further down to go for BP.