I think virtually everyone outside the Joe Barton family would agree that Tony Hayward has failed as the operational leader of BP during the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
From the media reports, it seems as if “Wayward Hayward” eats three square meals of “fillet of foot” every day. Watching Mr. BP commit faux pas after faux pas for weeks on end has left me wondering if “foot in mouth disease” is fatal. When I close my eyes and slowly chant the words “Tony Hayward,” I now get a vivid image—almost an hallucination—of Clarabelle honking the horn of a tricycle too small for him, scurrying herky-jerky among tightly packed rigs in an oil field.
All joking aside, from the standpoint of a public relations professional, Hayward has failed miserably as a corporate spokesperson because he did not represent the company in much of what he said.
Let’s start with some basic PR theory. In the current world of easy litigation and clashing special interest groups, one of the primary job responsibilities of chief executive officers is to represent the company. If the CEO does it well, like Lee Iacocca, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell, it can help a company enormously.
Representing the company means talking to the news media and appearing at public meetings. CEOs of even mid-sized companies generally have a communications staff which has as one of its key responsibilities making sure that the CEO has all the facts in hand he or she needs to represent the company to the news media or public. The CEO is not a sales executive, but always has sales numbers. The CEO is not a HR person, but always knows how many people the company just laid off or hired. The CEO doesn’t do research, but knows what the next products to be commercialized are. The CEO knows all this because other company employees tell the PR department, which churns it into easy-to-understand bullet points.
When a CEO speaks in a crisis situation, he represents the company, not himself. But too often with the news media, and especially in front of Congress, Hayward answers were clearly from him and about him, and not from and about the company that pays him millions a year to be its most visible leader. Time and time again, he would plead ignorance about matters that someone at BP surely knew something about. He would say he didn’t know about the engineering, instead of saying “My engineers in the field are telling me….” It made him look stupid and made BP look stupid for putting him in charge.
We may never know why the BP PR mavens and mavenesses advised BP and Hayward to keep it personal, but it may have been a trick to avoid revealing a lot of damaging information. As it is, most news media have reported that BP cut corners to drill the well that burst. There have also been reports that BP took shortcuts that led to two other less damaging accidents within the past few years. Even BP’s fellow oil companies ran a bus over it a few dozen times when it came to the subject of safety precautions for deep water drilling. In short, it’s very possible that BP knows more but that what it knows is very damaging, and so it decided that the best way not to reveal what it knows was to pretend that Hayward was speaking for himself and just didn’t and doesn’t know enough.
It was a mistake, but I bet BP’s lawyers figured that the less it said, the less likely it would be sued, and that it was going to get a slew of bad publicity no matter what it said. No excuse to throw gasoline on a fire, if you ask me.
Classic PR theory dictates that in a crisis, an organization tells everyone what went wrong as soon as possible and tell what it’s doing to fix it and why it won’t happen again. That often means firing the people who made the mistakes, and BP probably should have fired the people who took the shortcuts drilling the well and then announce a new set of standards to avoid the chance of a repeat. Of course, it’s too early to say, but in BP’s case, that might have meant firing most of the senior management team.