The BP oil spill that started in the US in April 2010 is undoubtedly bad news. In fact it is the worst environmental disaster that has ever happened in the United States. It is in fact verging on a catastrophe in environmental terms and for BP itself, it is an economic disaster that has to be regarded as potentially being irrevocably damaging for the company. But what can be learned from how BP managed the bad news?

Well the first lesson to be learned is that any Chief Executive appointed to a large company that has the potential for a crisis occurring needs to have excellent presentational skills and the ability to manage bad news effectively. The Chief Executive of BP, Tony Hayward seems to have failed on both scores.

BP always carried the risk of having an oil spill. It goes with the territory. When you are drilling for oil, especially in deep water, where you simply cannot get to the source of the spill, you run the risk of having an environmental catastrophe. In fact, some commentators have stated that it was only a matter of time for BP and they were almost lucky to get away with not having a spill for so long.

So a good Chief Executive and Board would have made sure that it had a really good PR team who could spring into action and try to manage the bad news in a way that was seen as being honest, open and the company itself could be portrayed as being competent. This did not happen when the BP oil spill started. This is a fundamental lesson that should be learned. Any company that carries with it such enormous risks in terms of ‘bad news’ needs to be ever ready to manage bad news and to offer a robust defence and talk clearly about what can and cannot be done to solve the problem.

Indeed the messages that were issued by the Chief Executive led to a senator declaring that BP were either liars or they were incompetent. Either way this is not good PR.

The Chief Executive has also been criticised for his ineptitude when it comes to addressing different audiences. He also appeared oblivious to the criticism that was mounting and he failed to read the warning signals that the public in the US were hostile to BP and they were being hung, drawn and quartered within the media, without any pretence of a trial.

These failings ensured that BP were portrayed as being the ‘bad guys’ on a massive scale and yet had they had good PR and a Chief Executive who was more adept at handling both the media and the US politicians then the news could have been managed in a much more effective manner.

The Chief Executive of BP is a geologist by profession and certainly not a slick presenter. However his approach and his failings led BP to be vilified almost overnight. He was replaced in terms of being directly in charge of dealing with the oil spill, but by the time of the replacement, the damage had already been done.

The other major lesson to learn from BP is that in the immediate period after the spill started, they failed to undertake a massive PR campaign trying to show that they were not indeed the villains that they were portrayed as by President Obama and the US media. Instead they seemed to go underground and simply hope that everything would just ‘go away’ which of course it didn’t. So unfortunately there are many lessons to be learned from BP, but none of them show how to manage bad news; instead it is about what you should not do when managing bad news.

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One Response to “Key Lessons To Be Learned From BP In The Art Of Managing Bad News”

  1. Pete on August 4th, 2010 5:10 am

    The lesson learned again is that perception is reality. The facts don’t matter. What is said doesn’t matter. What is seen and heard matters.

    The politicians got it right. While they jostled in line to get in the ring with an already fatally wounded prize fighter, the perception was that they were the energetic and inspired saviours of the American people. All credit to them. Perception is reality.

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