In April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, causing what has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and taking the lives of 11 rig workers and injuring 17. For 87 straight days, oil and methane gas spewed from an uncapped wellhead, one mile below the surface of the ocean. By the time the well was capped three months later, the federal government estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.
What happened next would impact BP’s reputation for decades to come.
One month after the explosion, escaping oil continued to poison the shores of the Gulf, impacting the marine life and the livelihoods of residents. The spotlight was on BP and there was mounting pressure for the company to be accountable and act. However, BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. In an interview, he apologized for the “massive disruption” and then went on to say, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” To add insult to injury, Hayward was also spotted strolling casually along the Gulf shore when he should’ve been spending every waking minute in a situation room.
He had just announced to the world that America’s worst-ever environmental disaster had become an unwelcome disruption to his personal life. Such a callous response was not quite the way you’d expect an oil giant like BP to show empathy and understanding in a crisis. Hayward then was forced to apologize for his apology, but the damage was already done — and not too long afterward, he was relieved of his duties and quietly ushered out by BP.
The poor judgment and failure to recognize the severity of the situation that confronted Hayward is a great example of the importance of public relations for leaders. It’s hard to fathom that a company like BP did not have the contingency and crisis management plans in place for an incident such as this. Unfortunately, BP is not alone — there is a catalog of PR blunders that have and will continue to happen in the absence of proper training and planning.
PR Preparedness for Military Leaders
The defense industry is no different and its leaders should take heed and learn lessons from others. The importance of public relations training and being prepared for a crisis cannot be underestimated.
Take the military, for instance. You can learn a great deal from its overall public affairs efforts, and the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference’s outreach in particular. Here are some of the lessons, shared by one participant, that can be applied to enhance your organization’s PR and communications efforts:
- Act ethically and stand for something bigger than yourself.
- Commit yourself to lifelong learning and retraining.
- Treat all communications campaigns like military missions; have clear objectives and communicate widely, up and down the team.
- Have a Plan B and a Plan C ready to go — and be prepared to use them as the situation evolves.
- Fill your professional foxhole with people you trust.
- Learn to work under stress — a condition that’s natural and inevitable.
- Remember that everyone can be a leader, regardless of their rank or title.
- Know that earning and maintaining trust and respect are never-ending missions.
- Find good partners and teammates and realize that you can’t be good at everything.
- Keep in mind that having great tools makes great people even better.
- Remember that your organization’s culture and values must align.
Other traits that are synonymous with the military and can help any leader prepare for and navigate a crisis include:
If there is one thing you learn in the military, it is accountability. Without it, the chain of command fails as everyone is required to play their part. But as a leader, you’re accountable to your team, the company and sometimes shareholders and the general public. As a leader, you are accountable to your “mission” and purpose. You are just as accountable as any member of your team. Being prepared to be accountable in a crisis will serve you well now and in the future.
In the face of a crisis, ego is the last thing you want to get in the way. The sense of duty, service and humility taught in the military creates great leaders who have the respect of their peers and charges alike. Business leaders who are humble and serve are often more respected and followed.
Being accessible and flattening your communication hierarchy means that open conversations can be had — it’s critical for the success of your mission. It’s also helpful to have your ear to the ground when tensions arise. Being open to hearing diverse opinions and being informed puts you in a much better place to respond to the situation at hand. It means there are fewer obstacles in your way to access information and to feel heard. It builds trust.
This is an obvious one but probably the most important trait to emulate. Being prepared is drilled into you in the military. Having a plan and the muscle memory to act when under pressure is key to executing your mission with success.
Do you have contingency plans for when a crisis occurs? Have you undertaken the necessary scenario planning to stress-test a possible future event? Do you have the right team of advisers and statements prepared to react swiftly and act?
When you are embroiled in a crisis, it is no time to begin formulating a plan to address it. It is far better to execute a strategy that was prepared in advance. The saying, “Prevention is better than a cure,” rings true and you don’t have to be an oil giant to have these types of plans in place. Every company, no matter its size, should take advantage of PR training to avoid the minefield of media blunders before they occur.
The Institute for Defense and Business (IDB) delivers educational programs and research to teach, challenge and inspire leaders who work with and within the defense enterprise to achieve next-level results for their organization. IDB features curriculum in Logistics, Supply Chain and Life Cycle Management, Complex Industrial Leadership, Strategic Studies, Global Business and Defense Studies, Continuous Process Improvement, and Stabilization and Economic Reconstruction. Visit www.IDB.org or contact us on our website for more information.