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How Do We Grade Oil Spill PR? E. Bruce Harrison and Judith Muhlberg,
Adjunct Professors, Public Relations and Communications Graduate Program,
Georgetown University. June 02, 2010

Attention, class.

Today, we hand out mid-term grades to those of you who have been handling crisis communications for the White House and for BP.

Before we do, we want to remind you that we are not here to evaluate your respective management's handling of the oil spill crisis; we are evaluating your communications strategy and execution.

We would of course expect you to be a force in top-level decision making, a counselor on the impact of decisions on your organization's sustainability. After all, your job as chief communications counselor will be made more or less secure by the execution of management strategies.

So, as to your grade, those of you who work for your boss, President Obama: we marked you with a soft C-minus, mostly because you got off to a slow start — in spite of the well-known positioning bias of "don't let a good crisis go to waste."

We talked in class about how a fast show of concern pays off — Clinton with Oklahoma, Reagan and the Iran hostages. You had the case study of Katrina as "a teachable moment."

Why weren't you saying in that first Oval Office meeting: "Well, rule one in crises like this is to get to the scene. We need to show you care. Put us on the side of the victims. Show you walking around, listening to people. Stand in the marshes in hip boots, pick up an oily ball or bird if we can find one. Maybe take Carol or Ken Salazar or whoever's going to back you up. But, we've got to be there so we can show we know and careā€”and so we can say later we were there on day one." ?

Point two in our grading, and we'll stop with this: Why weren't you able immediately to define the role of the White House — your responsibility — compared to what you expect from BP? You've communicated back and forth, and lately seem to say you're more technical than you are human or compassionate.

We thought maybe you would in day two or three have had a news conference with the head of BP in Louisiana in which he commits to the physical, technology, clean-up job and the President is there to hold his feet to the fire — to take "personal" responsibility for giving BP all the support the Federal government can provide and for holding the company accountable — while reaffirming the White House's compassion and cooperation with all involved to minimize harm.

If there had been a news conference very soon after the news broke you might have had the President say something like: "I'll be back here as often as necessary. Carol Browner/Secretary Salazar will be here constantly. The president of BP and I have agreed to another news conference, on this spot, in seven days, where we will assess where we are and where I pray there will be good news."

Students, all of you, White House or BP: you are perception management experts. In a crisis, your stakeholders need to perceive two unswerving qualities from your organization and your spokespersons: competence and compassion.

Stakeholders must know you can and know you care.

And you need to put major effort into control of the timeframe for perception. It has to be real and it has to be in real time.

BP crisis communicators, you earn a slightly better mid-term grade: a slightly solid B-minus. People perceive the company on the scene, in action, working, and accepting responsibility.

You learned the Valdez lesson. You got there and started communicating early. You've had highly visible, accessible spokespersons. You've seemed to be telling the truth — at least about what the company is doing to try to bring this thing under control — backing it up with proof in the form of live undersea video which is unprecedented. That aspect shows transparency and effort.

Your statements and visible company actions addressing economic interests — handing out checks, paying people, and the rest of it — are right. You enabled the President's communicators to get on the same page with you in addressing that level of responsibility.

We grade you high on your terrific website, your tweets, your YouTube and TV feeds and traditional interviews. We can't recall having seen a company in such peril try so hard to stay so open in such a complex media environment.

Communication mistakes are inevitable. You can counsel and coach but you can't control every outcome. Your principals are on their own in public interactions. We felt what we supposed was your pain when your CEO complained that he wanted his life back. We wondered if you had coached effectively against any sign of self-pity.

Here's your bigger problem: You're not able to communicate success. Your openness reveals inadequacy. You've done your best to explain how redundant spill-control technology should have worked, how this is all unprecedented. But you hear how this rings hollow.

And, while we understand that you can't go beyond what your co-strategists in the C-suite are prepared to do or say, you've got to be vocal about confronting the downsides sooner. We're sure you knew that when stories about apparent coziness between the company and the regulators began. What else do you need to air first before somebody else does?

We can't judge how you're preparing for what's ahead, as this crisis extends way past what crises are supposed to last; we expect you're preparing to communicate in the face of two inevitables.

One is the separation between company and state, as the White House saws the ties and leaves you out there communicating as the perceived lone villain. That's already under way.

The second inevitable is longer term. This moves toward your role as expert corporate communicator, crisis aside, in the crisis aftermath of reputation recovery. Is there life after this? Exxon kept its investors and its customers. What stakeholder strengths will BP represent? Your role as advocate and guardian of corporate values will be tested. We won't be grading you on that, but we hope you've got smart folks thinking about it.

Now, as you know, neither of us has any skin in this game. And, as outsiders and adjunct teachers, our hindsight is terrific. You can second-guess us and expect a lot of others to do the same for you in your roles. That's part of PR and that's it for this week.


This commentary appeared first in the Arthur W. Page Society blog, Page Turner.


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