All brands in this new age require a long-term strategic overview of every potential threat. The corporate vicissitudes being thrown up by the 21st century means that communication and PR skills must be, of necessity, embedded in the captains of industry. After all they are the brand custodians. But looking at BP, and Tony Hayward in particular, that lesson has clearly not yet been learned.
Problems can no longer be brushed under the carpet – corporations need to be fearing the worst and preparing to deal with it in public. The brand narrative of the big corporations needs to be played out transparently and in public.
BP in particular has neglected to consider how devastating a corporate crisis – especially one so mismanaged from the top – can be in this age of instant opinion, globalised rolling news, social media and febrile politics. They were still locked into a comms crisis planning scenario built in the 1990s in the wake of the Brent Spar disaster when the spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred. They had not planned any new PR approaches at all.
BP and public relations have had an uneasy relationship over the last 100 years; they have fallen out in public with everyone from revolutionary nationalist leaders in the Middle East to the United States. But the new age demands a front and centre spokesmen who can make the audience feel like he is listening and actually gives a damn.
But Tony Hayward, facing the Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on “The Role of BP in the Deepwater Horizon Explosion and Oil Spill”, doesn’t seem to have learned a great deal about being inclusive, about engaging with the public and the politicians. Accused of stonewalling, he stonewalled. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer most of the questions he was presented with. In fact, he looked like a tired undertaker who was rather bored with having to look mournful.
Given that a woman held up proceedings earlier in the hearing shouting protests at Hayward, it would have been advisable to show some regret rather than say he felt “a great deal” of responsibility for the oil spill and that it was “a tragedy” with all the emphasis and enthusiasm of an autistic sloth.
It’s impossible to make a hearse driver an F1 champ and so it is with Tony Hayward. The man has the communication skills of a tax inspector; dry and arrogant. It’s incredible that one of the most important corporate jobs in the world has been entrusted to him. This crisis, combined with the corporate downturn, is a game changer. Nothing will be the same in the wake of Hayward’s responses to the Energy Committee.
Other companies who sail close to the edge must be thinking hard about the sort of CEO they get for the new globalised media world. They cannot get anyone as callow and frail as Hayward – one disaster and they could fall apart.
Hayward has reportedly been undergoing training in front of a “murder board” of legal experts to groom him for the aggressive questioning he might face from the Congressional Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee in Washington, but he could not hide his terror. If this is how he copes, even with the best training money can buy.
Tony Hayward says the wrong thing at the wrong time, has turned his back on the green energy revolution, is universally loathed and is clearly utterly afraid. On this evidence, he is just not fit for purpose. He is surely not long for the CEO’s job.
An edited version of this blog appeared in today’s Telegraph.