Thursday, May 27

Communicating Zip: Why Halliburton Is Quiet

When you visit the Halliburton Web site, one of the world’s largest providers of products and services to the energy industry, business continues as usual.

The board declared a 2010 second quarter dividend of nine cents ($0.09) a share on the company’s common stock, the Gulf of Mexico remains "one of the world's most prolific producing areas," the company was busy presenting at the 2010 UBS Global Oil and Gas Conference, and the deep water drilling section of the site concludes "our experience speaks for itself."

Mostly, with exception to the prepared statement (one release away from being bumped off the home page) that was delivered by Tim Probert, president, Global Business Lines and chief Health, Safety and Environmental officer, Halliburton, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico already reads like a memory rather than a current event. It's not.

The Halliburton Connection To The Spill.

Halliburton connection to the crisis is that it was responsible for sealing the well. The casing to seal the well was installed several days before the explosion. (CNN provides one of the better investigation time lines for April 20, if you are interested.)

What makes the casing significant is most accounts point to gas leaking through the casing just hours before the explosion. This seems to be supported by BP briefs as rig workers tried to close valves on the blowout preventer at least twice.

However, there are four points to consider related to the casing. Only one point falls squarely on Halliburton.

1. BP's decision to install a single barrier option made the best economic case.
2. There are some contentions that the Halliburton work was taking longer than usual and possibly improperly constructed .
3. BP seems to have made a decision to perform some tasks related to the last plug in reverse order, something that would require MMS approval.
4. BP officials had made a decision to run only six of 21 tests to ensure the drill pipe was properly centered; an uneven drill pipe could have contributed to the instability of the installation.

The Halliburton Postion And Communication Strategy.

The Halliburton position is that it was following Transocean’s orders (as dictated by BP) and is "contractually bound to comply with the well owner’s instructions on all matters relating to the performance of all work-related activities." It has simultaneously defended its work while also claiming it is premature and irresponsible to speculate on any specific causal issues.

In terms of ongoing communication, other than saying it is cooperating with investigations and releasing its investigation statement, the company is silent. While Halliburton is providing some intervention support to help secure the damaged well and planning and services associated with drilling relief well operations, details are absent.

Public relations professionals and crisis communicators generally hate this communication approach. The reality is that such little communication from Halliburton is indicative of a subcontractor role. Crisis communicators don't generally teach it, but subcontractors generally attempt to position themselves as subordinates.

The benefit for the subcontractor is limited responsibility for the communication. The benefit for the contractor is greater message control. In this case, Halliburton has mostly used its communication to send a message to BP and Transocean. That message is clear: it's your show unless you try to toss us under the bus.

Halliburton Communication Overview.

• Of the three companies, Halliburton is in the best possible position to escape the bulk of the backlash. It seems to know it, because even if the investigation shows its work may be the primary cause, the primary cause on its own did not result in a disaster. Several decisions leading up to and after the installation seem to have led to significant lapses in safety.

• The subcontractor communication strategy — based on the observation that the general public is not the customer — is becoming an arcane practice. While subcontractors have been traditionally exempt from the most rules of communication, the general public has become increasingly critical of subcontractors since the advent of social media.

• There are still weaknesses in Halliburton's communication. Given prior public exposure, the public is beginning to remember its name as a controversial and untrustworthy corporate citizen. Further, the excuse, "just following orders," seems as thin as medical personnel who relied on it during another crisis we covered two years ago.

• The most challenging concept for communicators to grasp is that the greatest threat to Halliburton is not tied to public pressure. It is only tied to how future contractors perceive their communication and cooperation during the crisis.

Since the company's survival rate is mostly based on how contractors view their cooperation, it seems likely that this company will once again survive controversy while employing a situational communication strategy that most communicators would not recommend. What could it do better?

Even for a subcontractor remaining mostly silent, Halliburton could have shored up communication on four fronts. Among them: communicating policies to ensure safe working conditions despite contractor "orders," avoiding any speculation in the testimony as opposed to what can only be called selective speculation, providing BP updates to roll on their site despite their own silence, and better communicating its role in cleanup efforts as a BP partner in being part of the solution.

In 2009, Halliburton’s total cash and in-kind donations amounted to $572 million. It would only make sense to earmark some of these funds toward a cleanup effort the company is at least partly responsible for.

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