What Is BP Doing Right?

You don’t have to go far to hear someone criticize BP for the catastrophic impact of their oil spoil. The news media have chronicled every misstep. Psychologists, environmentalists, and social media experts have all weighed in on what BP should have done or should be doing.

I certainly understand the frustration. We vacation on the Gulf Coast and treasure the years of memories we have collected on the beaches of Destin, Seaside, and Rosemary. As a result, we feel a tremendous sense of loss, not only for ourselves, but especially for our friends who live, work, and play there.

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In the midst of this, I haven’t been exactly sympathetic to BP’s plight. However, this morning I was watching The Today Show when a BP commercial came on (embedded above). Normally, I mute the commercials, but this one immediately hooked me. I stopped what I was doing and watched the whole thing—all 60 seconds.

While BP may have initially bungled its response—and particularly its messaging—I think the PR flaks have now figured it out. Why is this relevant?

Because as leaders, we will inevitably find ourselves in some kind of crisis. It may not be as big as an oil spill, but it will still feel bigger than life. Thankfully, we can learn both from what BP has done wrong and what they are now doing right.

From the commercial I watched this morning, I think BP is doing at least five things well:

  1. They are using real people to tell their story. The people providing the narrative aren’t actors, CEOs, or stand-ins. They are ordinary workers who grew up on the Gulf and live there. This cleanup matters to them because it’s their home, their beaches, and their livelihood.
  2. They are taking full responsibility for the clean-up. I know, it’s easy to be cynical. “The proof will be in the pudding.” But at least BP is saying the right thing. In today’s world, even that is rare. While I haven’t made a mess this big, I have made plenty of my own. I was grateful when people extended me some grace.
  3. They are committed to keeping us informed. Frankly, that can’t be easy. It must be difficult to get your message across in world where negative news spreads quickly, and others exploit your blunder for their own political or economic gain. It would be easy to give up and throw in the towel.
  4. They articulate the specific actions they are taking. Cleaning up an oil spill is not glamorous work. It is expensive and tedious. “Every morning over 50 spotter planes and helicopters take off to search for the oil … then the boats go to work … over 6,000 vessels … 8 million feet of boom to protect the shoreline.” I find the specifics compelling. They are taking specific actions to fix the problem.
  5. They are realistic in setting our expectations. “We can’t keep all the oil from coming ashore, but I’m going to do everything I can to stop it.” That rings true. He doesn’t over-promise. After all, BP can’t un-spill the oil. But they can clean up their mess, compensate people for their losses, and learn from the experience. I can’t ask for more than this.

As the crisis has worn on, I have wondered if BP could repair the damage to its brand. Ultimately, this will depend on whether or not they clean up their mess and restore the Gulf to its pre-spill state.

In the meantime, I believe they are beginning to turn the momentum. I, for one, am rooting for them. If they can stick with it and see it through to completion, they can turn public opinion around. If there’s hope for BP, there’s hope for anyone in a crisis.

Question: What else do you believe BP has done right? (You can rehearse what they have done wrong if you want, but, honestly, what can you add that hasn’t already been said?)
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  • http://twitter.com/changememe @changememe

    Go to BP.com, their default front page is all about their response to the crisis and it has been for months. This is a sustained effort to keep communicating. They keep improving this page, they now have links to claim info and all the contact phone numbers a visitor might want.

    There is plenty they've done wrong, and plenty of blame to go around. However not ALL the blame lies at their door. The other thing they've done right for most of the disaster is not get into that discussion.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I was impressed by this page, too. They link to things they would probably rather hide. It is refreshing to see a corporation this large begin practice transparency.

  • http://www.patlayton.net Pat Layton

    I agree with you Michael.
    There may be some stupidity behind this spill but in front of it seems to be integrity and ownership, along with sincere, strategic and articulated steps towards correction and compensation. Honestly it is far more than we get from our government leaders regarding the economy.
    We have learned to expect less.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I wish the leaders in government who are demanding transparency but offer a little of their own. “What is good for the goose …”

  • http://www.marcmillan.com Marc Millan

    In terms of leadership, you are absotluetely correct, they are doing the right thing by saying they messed up, after this fiasco who can trust them if they don't confess to it? So a big step in leadership there, the other is updating the process, this is another big one in leadership, people and followers can get very frustrated, confused and begin to believe you lied if you don't keep them informed, honestly in the process. People aren't stupid, they just want to know, that YOU know they are aware. BP is saying this better and doing it better as time goes on.

    • http://modernservantleader.com/ Ben Lichtenwalner

      Lessons learned or "Post-Mortems" on failures are as important as fixing the problems. If there is no change in the process (policy or governance) moving forward then we are not learning from our mistakes. I agree Marc – great point.

  • Shari Brown

    I wish I could be as magnanimous as you all. This most recent report from the NY Times doesn’t alleviate what I feel is a greedy corporation, trying to get the most return with the least contribution. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/us/22transocean.html
    I also have a photographer friend who was covering the spill and the important pictures that he took are now prohibited from being viewed. Transparent, no, opaque at best.
    I do realize Transocean has culpability as well. End rant.
    I do think the commercial was a smart marketing move, I, for one, am still not swayed.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

      Great candor Shari. I share you sentiments on the current status and overall results to date. However, it is my sincere hope that the messaging BP is providing is more than just marketing ploys. That said, I realize only time will tell. I appreciate your contrarian view though. Thanks for sharing.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

      Aren't photographs covered under the First Amendment? Who has the authority to prohibit pictures from being shown?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=578520260 Shari Brown

        I am trying, in vain, at this point, to find the Anderson Cooper video I saw on the Presidents order prohibiting photos from an area surrounding the spill. I think the distance was 60 yards, I am beginning to question this though since I can not confirm it. Or if I were a conspiracy theorist I might wonder…

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

          If you find that, I'd like to see it, too. Thanks.

        • http://webbadventuress.wordpress.com Sarah Webb

          Here's the video you are all looking for: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXsmLMV1CrM&fe…!

          Honestly, I feel about the same way as I did the first time I saw it. It seems more than a bit propagandist to me. 65 feet is not that far away. These people have more than enough equipment to capture what they need to. At this point we know the situation is dire, we know things need to be done, we can imagine how disastrous this is for the people, the wildlife, the environment. A lot of these exposes are not about driving the government to action, but about furthering a journalist's career, bulking up their portfolios, making a buck. I am photographer. I understand the desire to get in there and to get the shot you want. I understand wanting to capture something not only for yourself but for others to see. The thing is, there is often a very fine line between a photojournalist and a paparazzo. How much is selfish ambition and how much is really revealing the truth? The fact of the matter is, the work of the cleanup crews and the Coast Guard is A LOT more important to me than furthering my career or knowing every detail about what is going on. Let them do their work. Get out of their way. They shouldn't have to spend their time dodging the media or asking them to move.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/chrisspradlin Chris Spradlin

    Great insight! I think the flywheel is starting to crank up a bit for them in terms of restoring their good name. They have a long way to go, but you can see it start to turn. I love the "real people telling real stories"…this is authentic, real, impactful, honest and engaging! the church, blog content, etc….should take notes on this one.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. Nothing had connected with me before. I think their CEO actually made things worse. (CEOs sometimes do that!) But the real people put it on a level I could relate to.

  • http://modernservantleader.com/ Ben Lichtenwalner

    Great points Michael. In your optimism and uncommon view you've also presented two more items leaders should do in a crisis:

    6. Find the Positives: In a crisis, leaders must certainly address all the negatives. However, it is also up to the leaders to keep an eye on the positives – such as improvements being made, progress and other items that share a feeling of moving forward for the team.

    7. Take a Unique View: In circumstances where the majority are "going with the flow", leaders are often defined by their unique ability and insight to approach a problem with a new perspective.

    Thanks for sharing Michael and for challenging our thinking.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for these two additional points. Excellent!

  • byronu

    As I read your post a BP commercial came on talking about what they're doing in the gulf. It's not a blame game for me. I can't believe anyone in their right mind would think an oil company, or any company for that matter, would allow such a disaster. There is no profit in it. Companies make profit. It's what they do and why we create them.

    The horrific truth lies in the gulf itself. The ecosystems involved will be impacted for years. Whether you feel for the commercial fisherman, the residents, the tourists, or any other impacted group, the bottom line is the impact on the environment is yet to been seen.

    Not to miss the mark, whoever is working BP's pr (damage control) should be commended.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I agree. We don’t need to fix blame (there will be plenty of time for that); we just need to fix the problem.

  • http://www.yuzzi.com Rick Yuzzi

    I saw that same commercial this morning, and it made an impression on me, as well.

  • Jesse

    I have to agree with Shari Brown that I'm not yet sold on BP's new "transparency." The photoshopped picture of the command center, plus a photoshopped pic from inside a helicopter over the gulf that came out yesterday, are a case in point. These are especially frustrating because BP really does have a high tech command center for the oil spill, and they really do have choppers flying around looking for oil. Why not just use real pictures? It's an extension of the "stonewall at all costs whether we need to or not" philosophy that dominated their communications strategy during the early weeks of the disaster. It's going to be the definitive negative example in crisis communications and PR textbooks for decades to come. I understand that it's exceptionally difficult to handle PR for the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, but it doesn't help to shoot yourself in the foot.

    I do have to say, however, that I appreciated the fact that BP never pursued the effort to silence "Leroy Stick" (@BPGlobalPR) on Twitter. They probably could have from a legal standpoint, since he's falsely using their brand name. But BP wisely made the choice to endure the mockery and let it go. Smart move.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I’m not sure what you mean by “photoshoped”; what I embedded was a video not a photo. Am I missing something? Perhaps you could provide a link. Thanks.

      • http://davidbmclaughlin.com davidbmc

        Michael, they are not referring to what you posted. They are referring to images that BP has released to the press that were later discovered as photoshopped. You can google for info or get a taste here: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2010/07/23/BP-remo

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

          Got it. Thanks.

    • http://www.facebook.com/TimothyFish Timothy Fish

      Personally, I don't have problem with the Photoshopped images. As far as I can tell, they don't present an inaccurrate story. The fact is that most major corporations put out Photoshopped images. In some cases it is necessary because cameras don't handle light as well as the human eye. In other cases it is necessary because an image contains information that the company doesn't believe should be released to the public. In the case of the helicopter, they may have wanted the crisp image taking a picture from a stationary position would give them that they wouldn't have gotten while in the air.

  • http://twitter.com/sahaynes @sahaynes

    "If there’s hope for BP, there’s hope for anyone in a crisis." <-Great line. Sometimes we forget that our largest challenges are nothing compared to the height or width or depth of the Hope that we have.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Laurinda Laurinda

    It's way too easy to be a critic. No need for a college education to be a good one. I've checked out their website and they are working hard to be transparent. Nobody wants that kind of catastrophe on their watch. They will restore their name but will always have critics out there. I work for an airline who had a plane go down in the pacific ocean 2 years before I started. One local newspaper takes EVERY chance they get to rip us apart – it's been 10 years. Every year at stakeholder meetings a few people who lost loved ones show up and criticize. With all of BP efforts to not over promise, that will never be good enough for a lot of people. I think it's unrealistic to expect the Gulf to return to pre-spill state any time soon: look at Valdez nearly 20 years after the Exxon/Valdez spill.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      You're probably right. I just want the best outcome for my friends and for the environment. Thanks.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Geoffreywebb Geoff Webb

    “We can’t keep all the oil from coming ashore, but I’m going to do everything I can to stop it.”

    Notice the shift from "we" to "I" in this statement. It's critical. If he had continued, "…but we're going to do everything we can to stop it" the statement would have diffused responsibility and lost it's power. We believe him because he's putting himself personally on the line – and right now, he is BP to us.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/MichaelSGray MichaelSGray

      I agree. We're not relying on BP, the huge corporation to clean up this mess, we're relying on Fred Lemond to get the job done. Personalizing it like this does add a better sense of accountability.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Exactly! Real people. Real stories. Real commitment.

  • http://medicalaccountsolutions.com misty

    Excellent article Michael. We all make mistakes, and if you don't focus on what you can do to fix it, you get drowned in the details of all you did and are doing wrong. We all need grace!

  • http://www.MindingGaps.com Thomas Lee

    Very interesting discussion. I have a rather unique perspective on this. You'll recall that BP bought the old Amoco Corporation in 1998. Amoco had worked for years to create a genuine safety-first culture. I was part of that effort. We dramatically reduced the injury and fatality rate. Even today, people are alive who wouldn't have been had we not acted so decisively and comprehensively. However, in taking control of Amoco, BP substituted its own cultural norms for ours. The results are evident not just in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe but in the Texas City explosions, the Alaska Pipeline troubles, and the Thunder Horse platform mess in 2005. The common denominator in all these issues is a culture that condones risk and haste at the expense of deliberate care and caution. It is the culture that is determinative here. It matters more than you can imagine. Meanwhile, throughout the early 2000s, BP advertised and marketed itself as "Beyond Petroleum" even while its internal culture was inconsistent with its external messaging. I want very much for BP to succeed here, and I do believe the oil industry has, as former Shell USA president John Hofmeister argues, "earned the right" to drill in deep water by drilling tens of thousands of safe and successful wells. However, BP would be wise to work its culture back to one that values people before profit, and only then to toot its horn. The timeless wisdom of successful PR applies: "Do the right thing, and then wait for someone to notice."

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. Culture drives everything. Hopefully, this will prove to be enough of a shock that they will have to change their culture.

      • http://www.MindingGaps.com Thomas Lee

        Indeed. It is my hope that the cost, the notoriety, and the inevitable regulatory burdens that accrue from this experience will be an object lesson to all industrial companies, especially in the resource-recovery sector (mining, timber, fisheries, and oil and gas), as they are historically the most dangerous to workers. I think it's safe to say that MBA students will be working on case studies of the Deepwater Horizon for many, many years to come. The thing I will never understand is why we human beings are so stubborn that it takes a catastrophe to teach us something that should be blindingly obvious. Any insights, anyone?

    • ByronU

      Companies don't care because people they want to but because they have to. Safety first only becomes important if it positively effects the margin of profit a company makes. People have to quit looking at companies as if they have benevolence. They don't unless it positively effects the bottom line.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

        I think you are making a sweeping generalization that isn’t always true. Just like people, some companies are bad—perhaps even evil, some are really good, and most are somewhere in the middle. What I have found is that companies reflect the behavior of their leaders. This, more than anything, creates the culture.

  • Dude

    The best thing BP has done was open up the convienent stores in their gas stations…

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    Here is something that BP could do that would serve a dual purpose. Why not pay a company to manufacture or retrofit skimmer boats that would separate oil from water and collect the oil in a large tank on-board. Then hire the out of work fishermen and shrimpers to go out each day and collect a tankful of oil. Pay the guys a decent wage for their time and also pay them by the gallon for the oil. The gulf would be cleaned slowly and surely and a lot of people would get back to work doing something useful and productive.
    If they create boats that have state of the art clean technology, it would be a showcase of what private enterprise can do to solve a huge problem. It would be a win, win, win. Furthermore, the boats could be used to clean up spills elsewhere around the world, providing even more jobs.

  • http://www.visionwrks.com GFitz

    Sorry, Michael, but it looks to me like you're drinking the KoolAid. I believe the point is not what BP is doing to repair their brand, but what will happen to repair the land and sea. Just because spin doctors have figured out some parts of message control (and why did it take this long for them to do that?) doesn't make BP leadership an example for any of us.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That's certainly an important conversation, but that was not the point of my article. I was not attempting to do a comprehensive review of all their actions and messaging. I was simply trying to point out a few things they were doing right based on the ad I saw.

      In every situation like this, there is good and bad. The media have done a great job pointing out the gaffs and mistakes. No need to repeat that here. I wanted to add some balance and give credit where credit is due. If that’s “drinking the KoolAid,” I’m guilty as charged.

      • Dude

        Totally agree with you!

  • http://davidbmclaughlin.com davidbmc

    I think it is possible to be simultaneously be doing things very right and very wrong. That is what I think BP is doing. I think the things you articulate in your article -for the most part- I would agree they are doing right. Then, obviously there are things they are doing wrong.

    Whether they endure will be a matter of 1) cash reserves to weather the storm, 2) whether they can restore trust. They are stronger on #1 than #2.

  • http://artbystevejohnson.com steve

    This campaign is fooling very few beyond the Chamber of Commerce types. The overwhelming sentiment being expressed is that this is making matters worse as it is a lot of money that isn't going to those whose lives BP have destroyed and damaged.

    BP need to forget the spin and the lawyers. They are in this so deep that normal PR rules don't apply anymore.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      So what would you suggest they do beyond what they are doing?

  • Andre

    I'm sorry, but I think BP's current position has been derived from trial and error. Their initial response is the most telling and the only true measure of their sense of responsibility. It's been almost three months, since the spill. A freshman PR major could have figured out what say by now. The fact that they didn't have a crisis management plan in place to deal with the PR aspects of the issue, shows they just didn't care enough to bother.

    Yes, they are getting it right now. But their initial behavior speaks volumes AND should make you question the sincerity of the current message.

  • Julie-Ann

    What a refreshing perspective! BP is facing a public relations crisis of monumental proportions on top of a very ugly environmental crisis. You are quite right in pointing out they are doing a pretty good job on the customer service end of this problem. As this article (http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-guarantees/when-service-goes-wrong-bounce-back) suggests, bouncing back calls for clear communications. BP’s commercials at least are helping on that front. Rather than cover up, they are owning up.

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