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June 21st, 2010
08:30 AM ET

Commentary: Exhaustion to blame for BP's PR blunders

Editor's Note: David Margulies is a 24-year crisis management veteran and founder and president of The Margulies Communications Group in Dallas. His book, “Save Your Company, Save Your Job: Crisis Management in the Internet Age,” comes out later this year.

By David Margulies, Special to CNN

It seems that every day BP makes some new public relations blunder, like BP CEO Tony Hayward attending a yacht race or talking about “getting his life back.” Many attribute these blunders to arrogance, insensitivity or stupidity. I would like to suggest a simpler explanation – these folks are just plain exhausted.

One of the most important decisions executives make is how to delegate important duties during a crisis so that no individual in overwhelmed. For example, when Captain Sully Sullenberger’s plane lost both engines over New York, he wrote that his first priority was to keep the plane in the air. Other duties were turned over to his first officer while Sully concentrated on job one.

To avoid these public relations blunders BP should have taken the same approach. The CEO can’t be the company’s primary spokesperson if he is also trying to deal with one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters.

One reason BP may have undertaken the strategy of making Hayward their main spokesperson is that many in the oil industry remember that the Lawrence G. Rawl, chairman of Exxon, was heavily criticized for not going to Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill.

But BP went too far. A visit to the site of the incident is appropriate for top company executives, but once BP’s CEO visited Louisiana he should have turned the role of spokesperson over to others in the company and focused on managing the crisis.

That’s the strategy we used when one of our clients had to deal with a major recall. The CEO focused on making sure customers had a fresh supply of product, worked with regulators and fixed the underlying problem. Our spokesperson, a veteran company executive, had the time to provide the media with the information they need to do their jobs because he was not directly involved in managing the recall. Everyone was satisfied with the response and the company remains a market leader today.

When someone tried to take on too many roles in a crisis they quickly become worn out and that leads to lapses in judgment. Remember Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on early morning television saying the system worked after the underwear bomber made it onto a commercial flight? Napolitano isn’t stupid or insensitive, but after hours of dealing with Congress, the White House and otherwise managing the crisis, she was probably exhausted. Her staff quickly issued a clarification.

Many companies use media interview training exercises to identify executives who are best suited as company spokespersons. Some are subject experts, others may simply have extensive industry experience. This training and evaluation is invaluable in assembling the company’s crisis management team.

Tired people say dumb things and today’s 24/7 news cycle quickly makes people tired. Sullenberger’s approach to divide responsibilities and focus on the most critical issue first is a good template for any company involved in a crisis.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Margulies.

Filed under: Opinion
soundoff (One Response)
  1. art

    I wonder if this "philosophy" would also work for the single mom with three kids who has to work three minimum wage jobs to keep a roof over her head, food on the table, and clothing on the backs of her school age children, all without access to quality health care for her family. Insurance costs have gone up 25% or more across the board since September of 2001, food costs are rising each and every day (and eating the "healthier foods is simply beyond her means), she's already seen $4.00 plus per gallon for gas (and the price is rising every day, again), and she hasn't had a vacation since the Supreme Court overturned an election.

    Who's yacht can she commandeer for an hour's peace?

    June 22, 2010 at 8:20 am |