I was watching a presentation from an international PR agency about trust, and they were talking about what makes a trustworthy spokesperson. Engagement ranked high on the list, right next to integrity. These are important points for your CEO to keep in mind, especially when reacting to a crisis.
A really bad example of how a spokesperson loses all public trust in a crisis is BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward.
In April 2010, a blast at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in history. It took five months for the well to be completely sealed, with oil leaking into the ocean every day. BP was widely condemned for its slow response to the leak, which pumped out around half a million barrels of oil in to the gulf during the first month. The world looked to Hayward for reassurance that the company would fix the situation as quickly as possible to limit the environmental and financial damage. Alas, Mr. Hayward was not the guy for engagement or integrity.
He made a lot (a huge amount!!) of mistakes when it comes to media relations around this crisis. In fact, google his name and you’ll find entire pages from credible newspapers and magazines listing his errors. The worst, undoubtedly, is the one where he forgets this crisis is not about him:
“We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Yikes, your life back, man? What were you thinking? Or how about this one?
“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” (speaking to fellow executives in London about the Gulf oil spill disaster)
There was the time he tried to deflect the blame.
“Well, it wasn’t our accident, but we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up, and that’s what we intend to do…The drilling rig was a Transocean drilling rig. It was their rig and their equipment that failed, run by their people and their processes.”
And of course, then there was the way he completely minimized the impact.
“I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.”
And of course my favourite,
“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
By October of that year, Tony Hayward was no longer BP’s CEO.