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Spokespeople sins: the case of BP

"Never get in a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel." (Unknown)

EXCEPT for the man who has the job to walk behind the elephant at the circus, I cannot think of a worse job, than the media spokesperson. Come to think of it there are many similarities between the 'Mr Elephant Pooper Scooper' and the spokesperson, they both have crappy jobs cleaning up the gigantic mess left behind by some huge behemoth.

Which leads us to the case of BP, the oil spill taking place in the Gulf of Mexico and the 'media adventures' of their CEO, Tony Hayward who spoke on behalf of his employer. For those of us who have been fixated by World Cup let's do a quick catch-up. Deepwater Horizon (an offshore drilling rig leased to BP) exploded in the Gulf on April 20 releasing as much as 2.5 million gallons of oil each day. Eleven people died in the drilling platform explosion that caused the spill. To date the cost of BP's response to the Gulf of Mexico's oil spill has hit $2 billion and the oil giant has so far paid out $105 million in damages to those affected by the disaster.

Meanwhile, CEO Tony has been stricken with the dreaded FIM ailment (foot-in-mouth disease for the uninitiated). Poor Tony. When the crisis broke nothing that he said was 'right' and everywhere he turned 'macca juk him'.

On 14 May in an interview with the Guardian, Hayward insisted that the leaked oil and the dispersant being released into the sea to try to tackle the slick should be put in context. He is quoted as saying: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." It gets worse. On 18 May in an interview with Sky News, Mr Hayward says he is not overly concerned by the amount of oil that is flowing into the Gulf of Mexico: "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest. It is impossible to say and we will mount, as part of the aftermath, a very detailed environmental assessment as we go forward. We're going to do that with some of the science institutions in the US. But everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact of this will be very, very modest."

On May 30, when asked what he would tell people in Louisiana, where the oil had begun to reach parts of the state's south-eastern marshes, Hayward told reporters, "The first thing to say is I'm sorry." (So far so good) "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back." That last statement just got everyone more vexed. Things just went downhill from there. But Tony, didn't eleven persons die in this tragedy -- how about their families? There seemed to have been nothing he could do to right that wrong. Even US President Barak Obama jumped in the fray when Hayward pledged "We will make this right." in a nationally televised broadcast that cost BP US$50 million. "What I don't wanna hear is when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising that they're nickel and diming fishermen," said Obama.

When things are going well for the company: i.e. there are no current crises and the financials look rosy media spokesperson is probably the best company job. In fact that is the time everyone wants to be that person - the one who speaks to the Press. The one who does the television and electronic media interviews - the media darling. As a reporter I found that it was in good times that you cultivated your best sources. The love affair is new and all communication channels are open. I can call any hour of the day for a comment and be put on to whomever - CEO, Minister, anyone.

But let things begin to sour and that is when the hiding begins. Hiding from the media and receiving a proper hiding from the Press. All of a sudden we are not friends anymore -- we've lost that lovin' feeling. It happens and that it why Gerard Braud tells us 'Don't talk to the Media -- 29 Secrets you need to know before you open Your mouth to a Reporter'. An international coach, Braud worked for fifteen years in print, radio and TV as a front line journalist and he is widely regarded as an expert in media training and crisis communication. Maybe Tony Hayward should have read Gerard's book before venturing into that media minefield.

One of the lessons that Braud shares in his book that Hayward and his band of merry men might have found instructive is lesson number 23, 'Selecting the right spokesperson'. Most companies either have the PR representative or the CEO speak to the media. He says, 'Picking the right spokesperson really depends on the situation." In a crisis situation Gerard prefers the CEO to be leading the crisis team during the crisis. "If a company uses a CEO as their spokesperson and the CEO misspeaks who will come in behind the CEO and clean things up if the CEO makes a mistake? Generally I save the CEO to be the final spokesperson when the crisis is over. It both allows the CEO to clean up after any misstatements by middle managers and it allows the CEO to be portrayed as a leader who is managing the crisis." Making the right choice of spokesperson might make a big difference.


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