by Frank Williams
For the past two months, much of America’s attention has been focused on the unfolding disaster resulting from the explosion of BP’s oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. I believe we are all united in our hope and prayer that those charged with capping the well and getting the leak under control will be able to do so soon. As someone who lives in coastal North Carolina and values our coastal resources, that is certainly my hope and prayer.
With that being said, I believe the aftermath of the BP oil spill offers a few public relations lessons.
Let’s start by talking about a few things I believe the Obama administration could have done differently. As an aside, it is important to note that I have the benefit of hindsight as I write this. This is not intended to serve as “armchair quarterbacking”. Instead I simply hope to point out a few public relations lessons we can all learn from the situation.
First, I believe there is a prevalent perception that the Obama administration has spent too much time talking about who is to blame for the explosion and subsequent leak. Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly a time for determining who is at fault. However, in my view the first and most important tasks are to stop the leak, do what we can to prevent the oil from reaching our beaches, and clean up those areas that have been affected. I believe the Obama administration would have been well served to focus its press statements and speeches related to the oil spill on the efforts to stop the leak and protect or clean up our coastal areas. That would have communicated leadership, whereas focusing on who is to blame opened the administration up to charges of political gamesmanship.
Second, I believe President Obama waited too long to give his Oval Office address. This opened him up to the charge of “too little, too late”. In hindsight, I believe the Obama administration should have taken steps to demonstrate that they were out in front of this issue early in the process; this would have reduced the “too little, too late” perception.
Third, I believe the Obama administration made a major public relations mistake by mentioning policy initiatives in the context of the oil spill. Regardless of how sincere the administration may be in its belief that the policies mentioned are worthwhile ones, and regardless of the perceived merit of those policies, mentioning them in the context of the spill lends itself to the appearance of political opportunism. In my view, doing so has opened the administration up to the perception that it is trying to leverage the crisis for partisan political gain.
In the interest of being bipartisan, I will touch on some remarks by Congressman Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who is the ranking member on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. At a recent hearing on the oil spill, Barton accused President Obama of engineering a “$20 billion shakedown” of the oil giant by pushing the company to create a $20 billion compensation fund for victims of the spill. Barton said, “I’m ashamed of what happened at the White House.” He added, “I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong is subject to some sort of political pressure that is — again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize.”
Regardless of whether you agree with Congressman Barton’s sentiments regarding the president’s approach to dealing with BP, the statement blew up in his face. The media seized on two words: “I apologize.” The news story became “Congressman apologizes to BP”. I am quite certain this is not the message he intended to communicate.
Words matter. In this situation Congressman Barton chose his words poorly, and his desired message was lost as a result.
Finally, let’s look at two dueling PR gaffes: one by BP CEO Tony Hayward, the other by the Obama administration.
Several days ago, the news broke that Hayward was, as one media outlet reported, “taking time off to attend a glitzy yacht race in England”. The Internet lit up with statements like “BP’s CEO goes to yacht race while oil spews in Gulf”. In my view, this was a horrendous error in judgment. Granted, every leader needs a break to clear his or her mind — especially in a crisis. However, doing so at a yacht race with media present was not a smart PR move by Hayward, and it fueled a perception that he is not concerned with the plight of the Gulf Coast residents impacted by the oil spill.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was quick to criticize Hayward — then the news broke that President Obama was getting ready to play a round of golf with Vice President Joe Biden and others. One blog headline said “Tony Hayward goes sailing while Obama plays golf”.
The fact that President Obama’s Chief of Staff criticized BP’s CEO for going to the yacht race when the president himself was getting ready to play golf opened the White House up to charges of hypocrisy.
Crises happen. When they do, some leaders appear calm, cool and collected. They look like they are in command, have a plan and are ready to meet the challenges they face. In some cases, this is the result of experience: they have been down this road before. In other cases, the crisis is unprecedented, yet the leaders still look like they have their act together. I believe this is often the result of careful planning. These leaders and their teams have thought through all of the “what-ifs” and planned out what they will say and do, even in the face of the unforeseen. This level of planning allows them to be pro-active and take command of the situation, rather than being forced to react to whatever comes their way.
Frank Williams is president of Pioneer Strategies, Inc., a public relations agency he founded in 2001. For more information, visit www.pioneerstrategies.com.