A conversation over at the Linked in group Public Relations and Communications Professional titled, "BP CEO: It's not my fault" brought to mind an uncomfortable reality public relations professionals must face:
The best crisis communications counsel and planning in the world won't make a dent if your operational response is weak.
No one -- not BP, TransOcean, Interior Dept... no one -- had fully contemplated the risks of a blowout a mile below the surface of the Gulf, nor did anyone have a plan in place for how to handle it. This much became apparent days after the explosion.
Since then, the public relations industry has fallen all over itself offering unsolicited advice to BP on how to present a human face for the company and manage communications to preserve the brand for a post-cleanup recovery. Aside from Tony Hayward's ongoing insistence that "we will pay", the company has seemed to go out of its way to injure its reputation at every opportunity.
Seems odd, doesn't it? The CEO essentially admits fault and offers billions to clean up the mess, but the media coverage and social media commentary is almost universally negative. A quick Social Mention score on BP and the oil spill paints a gloomy picture indeed. It's hard to find anyone who will defend BP, and those who do qualify their comments with great care. When Andrew Napolitano on FOX News tried to shift some of the blame to federal guidance based on faulty data, Shep Smith called him on it.
It's simple: You cannot communicate your way out of an utter inability to handle the crisis. To wit, BP still has not stopped the leak. BP is learning that transparency offered by social media will expose empty attempts at communications. They've become a liar at best, a conspiratorial plotter at worst. This viral video of Louisiana native Kindra Arneson telling her behind-the-scenes story is powerful, if certainly biased.
So, today's lesson from the BP disaster is simple: When planning for a crisis, make sure that your ability to communicate and your ability to operationally respond to the crisis are consistent with each other.