What CEO’s need to learn from Tony Hayward

Every CEO with serious crisis risk must want to sit down with Tony Hayward, the ignominious former BP CEO, and ask him: What the H happened? This blog post from speedcommunications may be the closest CEO’s may get to that opportunity. And the lessons learned here should not be missed.

When asked what he would have done differently, he states it clearly: “What would I have done differently? I would have had more of the senior team around me to handle communication with the media.” While the person in overall charge of the business should face the media music, that music is now so loud and persistent that one man alone cannot handle it.

On preparing in advance: He said: BP wasn’t sufficiently well prepared with communications processes and resources to handle what happened, and it showed. It was an unprecedented incident, but better planning was needed.

The point I would like to make however, having worked with BP on preparations as well as many other similar companies, they were far better prepared than most. Except for cutting back considerably on their communications and emergency response staff as part of overall corporate leaning efforts, they did take crisis communications more seriously than most other oil companies and far more than most other major corporations. Yet, it was far from enough.

Another key point: managing expectations: But one standout point was the need to ensure expectations are managed when the entire world is watching. This referred specifically to the ongoing efforts to cap the leak on the sea bed, during which the understanding of the degree of testing and due process required to be successful wasn’t nurtered as it could have been. That led to most people assuming that BP was throwing the kitchen sink (not literally, obviously) at the hole in desperate bids to plug it, rather than had a clear and proven process for successful resolution.

Media coverage. I would next expect Mr. Hayward to take the media to task further than his reference to “vicious.” But he does make the very telling point that there seems to be a huge gap between the media’s treatment of an event like this and how the public perceives that coverage. The blog post said: He said most people in the UK shake his hand and say they believe the media coverage and US Government’s intervention was over the top, while he told of a visit to New York City late last year when Americans approached him to say much the same.

What has social media done to crisis communications? In his words, the “viral media” created an immense burden on the communication team, on top of the impossible-to-meet demands for information from conventional media. At its height there were 50 people at BP working around the clock purely on countering “inaccurate” information being posted on Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms. It was a social media storm the likes of which the world had never seen before and hasn’t seen since. For the team trying to manage it, the pressure was immense and the tide impossible to turn around.

Bottom line: Crisis communications as a way of life: It was the mother of all ways to pinpoint that the people at the very top of businesses need to be not only in the media glare in the event of a crisis, but that they must make communication capabilities and process part of the organisation’s lifeblood at all times.

If that last sentence starting with the “people at the very top of business” was printed and posted on the wall outside of every senior executive’s office, we would be well ahead.