COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | LAURA WALCHER

Media training for Tony -- alas, too late

If you've been under a rock for the past few months, as BP's escaped oil gushes into the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, trashing business, tourism and not the least, countless birds and fish, you won't know about Tony Hayward, who, quote-by-quote, deepens the hole in which his company is drowning.

Maybe the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal -- among others -- are the only entities benefiting from this tragedy; BP's mega-bucks full-page ads plead their case: they didn't mean it; didn't see it coming; feel responsible; will make amends.

That might be sufficient "publicity" for maintaining their sincerity and integrity, but unfortunately, BP's heartfelt messages have been undermined daily by Tony Hayward, the company's CEO.

By now, perhaps BP is scrambling to find another spokesperson (even in a time of crisis, a company spokesperson need not be the CEO). At the very least, I hope BP has Tony Hayward deep in media training.

Ah, Tony, here's a start:

Tony: The spill will not cause big problems because the gulf ... "is a very big ocean" and ... "the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest."

Crisis communication lesson: Never minimize the crisis. Express company sympathy for its victims. Apologize for any responsibility the company bears.

Tony: "What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool kit."

Crisis communication lesson: However possible, move to the positive. What you DO have, what you CAN do. It is the CEO's task -- and duty -- to maintain, inspire or restore confidence in his/her company.

Tony: "I'd like my life back."

Crisis communication lesson: Besides the fact that it isn't about you, never, I mean NEVER speak spontaneously in a crisis. Anticipate every question, every issue. Compose your comments and rehearse. Refer to them if needed. (Mr. Hayward apologized for this comment in the wake of media and public outrage).

Tony, in response to outcry that he quit: "I'm not quitting despite outcry. It hasn't crossed my mind. It's clearly crossed other people's minds, but not mine."

Crisis communication lesson: Don't repeat negatives. Don't speak for others -- whether it's clearly crossed their minds or not, it's not for you to say. Say what you are doing, like, you're totally committed to make things right? (While he eventually did talk about his commitment, recognizing and repeating the negatives weakened the hoped-for strength of his message.)

Tony, regarding whether he -- or the company -- will be prosecuted: "I'm not anxious about being arrested ... the criminal investigation will proceed and draw whatever conclusion it draws. The only thing I'm losing sleep about is the leak."

Crisis communication lesson: Listen up: Don't repeat negatives. ("I am not a crook!" is now Nixon's most memorable line.) If you stuck to, "The only thing I'm losing sleep over is the leak," your point and commitment would have been far more succinct and far more powerful.

Tony: "The spill is relatively tiny."

Crisis communication lesson: Ah, Tony. The CEO must have all the facts before he/she opines. You don't want to have to backtrack or wrest your foot out of your mouth.

Tony: "This won't stop deep water drilling ... We will be at the vanguard because we will know more about it than anyone else."

Crisis communication lesson: Never speculate -- and I say that knowing you didn't think you did. But you did. A premature comment to begin with; a sigh if not wry-inducing comment to end with.


Walcher is principal communications consultant to JWalcher Communications and a professional media trainer.

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