Is the BP “black hat” fair?

There is a difference between perception and reality. That is intuitive, and public relations people have often said “perception is reality.” That’s because what people think (their perception) matters much more than what is. The goal of reputation management is largely about aligning perception and reality when the perception is bad.

What do you think of BP? If I were to ask the average person on the street or the average reporter what they think of BP, the following words would probably be used: evil, rogue company, uncaring, irresponsible, unusually careless, self-centered (“I want my life back” and yacht racing). There is no question that the primary story coming out of the spill is that while all major corporations tend toward the socially irresponsible and evil, BP, sort of like Enron, personifies the worst of what’s wrong with big, global companies.

The National Oil Spill Commission findings contradict that perception. The relevant quotation from the Wall Street Journal article is:

The blowout “was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again,” according to a chapter of the report released Wednesday. “Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.”

I do not anticipate that this finding will do much if anything to resurrect BP’s demolished public image. The only thing that will do that is continued effort at restoring the Gulf and operating well. As someone who was involved to some degree in helping BP communicate during the event, this report replays some of the anguish I and others felt during the horrific beating the company was taking this summer. When asked about BP, one word is not likely to come to mind for most people: victim.

I’m not saying this to try to defend BP or refurbish their reputation–and I am not working for them or being paid by them. I will not forget that eleven people died, a great many others have suffered great personal loss and the environment was severely and possibly in some ways permanently damaged. That is horrific and the report makes it clear that BP and others are to blame for this.

What I am talking about is whether public perception about BP, its roles, its activities, its culture, its values, is accurate or not. I don’t think it is, and that is a problem for the company but also for everyone else who clearly recognizes that “there but for the grace of God go I.” There is a gap between public perception and the reality of BP and its mistakes.

Could things have been done differently to avoid that misperception? I think so and I have commented about those here before. More importantly, for those companies who have an appropriate sense of vulnerability to the public beating they may take, what can they do to prevent it? Here are a few thoughts:

1) Look inside. Make concern for others and doing the right thing the highest corporate value. Reputation ultimately springs from character and values. The goal is to build trust and now I am more convinced than ever that trust needs to be built from the inside out.

2) Stockpile a solid reputation. You need public reputation equity. If you are not in trouble now, now is the time to put goodwill in the bank. Waste no opportunity, but focus those efforts on those people whose opinion of you matters most for your future.

3) When it happens, react quickly. And that depends on preparation. BP was more prepared than almost any other organization I know. And yet there were fundamental flaws in their preparation.

4) For the sake of your future, defend yourself. Don’t stand idly by while the crowd gathers around with truncheons. For the sake of truth, honesty and trust, be prepared to aggressively defend yourself. Yes, assuming you have screwed up, admit it, apologize, say what you are doing to fix it, do it–but that does not mean you have to sit back and take the lies, attacks, politicization, and mistreatment that will inevitably be handed out. You have a story to tell–tell it and tell it well.

5) Never, ever lose your credibility. What you do comes first, what you say is important and how it is said. When your spokespersons, your face to the public, becomes tainted and loses credibility (which is almost inevitable given the certain beating) you must move quickly to have a credible face to the public. Preparing the leaders you have to be that face is one of the most important things you can do.

And since, it does often come down to “the grace of God”, during all your preparations, pray.