Yup, It’s BP-Lesson Time Again

I almost feel compelled to apologize for writing about BP yet again. But it’s so hard to resist, like having one, single piece of delicious fudge and knowing that you cannot possibly stay away from a second piece or a third or  . . .

Colleague George Merlis has been surrendering to the same temptation I have, writing frequently about BP. As he said in a recent blog, BP has done so many things wrong that the company is providing a gigantic syllabus on learning how to deal with a business crisis.

Merlis is a master at corporate communications and authored How to Master the Media (JAAND Books). In his June 23rd blog, he mentions the Fifth Commandment of communications: “Thou shalt not lie, evade, speculate nor cop an attitude.” Unfortunately for BP shareholders, the company’s executives broke every part of that commandment.

BP lied about the size of the spill, claiming it was much smaller than it was, and lied about the underwater plumes, claiming they were part of the original leak. BP evaded by denying the media access to cleanup sites. And BP famously copped an attitude when CEO Tony Hayward said he wanted his life back — 11 people died in the initial explosion and 2 more died during the clean up — and this guy has the balls to say he wants his life back? His chairman, Carl-Henric Svansberg, copped an impressive attitude himself when he referred to all the people of the Gulf as the “small people.” (You can’t make this stuff up.)

As Merlis wrote, “BP’s gaffes just keep coming. It seems no one in this huge, multinational corporation has the capacity to learn anything from previous media mistakes. If BP had a crisis communications plan it was either highly flawed or got thrown out the window as soon as the crisis hit.”

In his July 2nd blog, Merlis talks about what may well have been the most astoundingly adept piece of crisis communications in the 20th Century: Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s note to the world in case the D-Day landings failed. Think the BP execs are under pressure due to the Gulf crisis? This is what Ike faced if the D-Day landings failed: thousands of lives would have been wasted on the Normandy beaches, thousands more would be wounded, and millions of people would continue to suffer at the hands of the Nazis.

His crisis communications plan was contained in one short note:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Compare that note to Merlis’s Fifth Commandment. No lies: The invasion failed and the troops were withdrawn. No evasion: Ike admitted to making the decision and explained it was made with the best information possible. No attitude: He commended the soldiers, airmen and sailors for their effort and then, knowing full well the immensity of the disaster, Ike accepted all of the blame. Alone.

How do we know Ike would have followed this plan? Because in September 1944, when Operation Market Garden (made famous in the book and movie, A Bridge Too Far) failed disastrously, leaving thousands of casualties, Ike accepted the blame. Alone.

If only the folks at BP were taking notes . . .

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To order Lead Like Ike, please click here.

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