I’m sure most crisis communicators have asked themselves that question in the last while. What if the new CEO of BP, Robert Dudley, called you into his office and said, OK champ, what do we do now? What would you say?
They haven’t, but it doesn’t stop me from speculating as to what advice I would give. So here goes:
1) You’re on the right track.
You made some impressive moves with the replacement of key executives and the formation of a new unit to focus on safety. That suggests you are serious about addressing the realities of a culture issue (whatever those may be) and the public and media perceptions. Now you need to follow that up with clear, consistent reporting on what changes are being implemented as a result of these steps.
2) Recognize your credibility is severely damaged.
While the move from Mr. Hayward to yourself was necessary and has been pretty positively received, do not deceive yourself into thinking that what you say is golden. You still have a BP logo on your business card and that nice little solar flower image is definitely not golden. You need a credible voice to speak to you and for you–one the nation trusts and that will surprise the media. They should not be a spokesperson for BP but instead a spokesperson for the public into BP, an ombudsman. But from that vantage point they can report on what BP is doing to fix the company, their image, their culture and the mess in the Gulf. Colin Powell comes to mind, of course Thad Allen would be outstanding but not sure how that would work. But, you get the picture. James Carville? Not so much.
3) You are a leader–don’t be afraid to lead.
Despite what many people may think of you and the lack of trust they express, the reality is that no one in the world has the knowledge and expertise that your organization has in dealing with deepwater well failures. You have already been generous in funding lots of studies. Now don’t be afraid to step to the front and help the rest of the industry, the nation and the world deal with the very real issues of deepwater drilling. Until the world loses its taste for hydrocarbons, we need that dinosaur rot and you know better than any how to get it and what can go wrong.
4) Become a champion for Unified Command and the National Incident Management System.
Because you were in the forefront of this thing, you know better than almost anyone what went right and what went wrong in the event. As Admiral Allen has pointed out, one of the biggest problems from a perception standpoint was the difficulty of the public (mostly the media) to understand how the party who caused or at least is responsible for the spill could also be a key part of stopping it and recovering. Some have suggested that the government should have all the technology and expertise your team has. It’s ridiculous and you know better than anyone. We need to have private/public collaborative response working effectively in this nation–both for human caused events like oil spills and terrorist attacks and major national disasters. Few are speaking out about the need to protect and enhance our National Incident Management System and the core concept of collaboration and mutual trust and respect. You took an awful beating from not just the media but the administration. It should not prevent you from speaking out boldly about the need for an effective Unified Command response and closer adherence to the key principles of the National Incident Management System.
5) Keep focused on building trust.
Sure trust was lost, fairly or unfairly. You can’t be the one standing there responsible for spilling five million barrels and not lose trust. But trust can be earned back. The focus is straightforward–do the right things and communicate about them well. You’ve done some tremendous work, particularly in community relations in the areas affected. Keep doing what you need to do, keep an eye out for the values and expectations of all the reasonable people out there, aggressively and consistently communicate and BP will not only restore the respect it once held, but earn new respect.
Best wishes to you Mr. Dudley.