Friday, May 28

Shifting Communication: Transocean Acts Under Siege

Much like Halliburton, the Transocean Web site remains unchanged by the Gulf Coast oil spill.

The most haunting page of all falls under the tab of responsibility. "At Transocean, we firmly believe that the safety of people underpins our success. Our safety vision above covers all our drilling units and shore-based facilities worldwide." And then there is the promise in big bold letters splash across the page as the header.

"Our operations will be conducted in an incident-free workplace, all the time, everywhere."

It's not just a headline by Transocean. It's also the company's vision statement.

Just off the front page, the only section mentioning drilling rig Deepwater Horizon is under news releases. All of its communication there has been a steady stream of releases, with an emphasis on the event from April 21 to April 26. April 26 marks the day that Transocean communication decisively changes.

The Communication Snap At Transocean.

What changed? Transocean shifts from crisis communication to increasingly defensive protectionism. After sending a message to investors that the total insured value of the rig is $560 million on April 26, releases shift to a limitation of liability petition for approximately $26 million as a necessary step to protect the interests of its employees, its shareholders and the company.

After that decisive turn, most communication becomes reactionary to rumors and the news reporting on those rumors, including the alleged distribution of any incident response forms that promised cash for cooperation. Four days later, Cheryl D. Richard, senior vice president of human resources and IT, announces her pending retirement.

The next and last communication, on May 25, responds to what it calls erroneous reports relating to its "shareholders' approval of a dividend and its intent to avoid liability arising from the Deepwater Horizon incident or to profit from such incident." The release goes on to say that "Transocean will honor all of its legal obligations arising from the Deepwater Horizon accident."

A statement seems to contradict its limitation of liability petition. Meanwhile, the company's online newsletter Beacon, appears frozen in winter 2010, filled with letters of praise. It's biannual employee publication is frozen even earlier; the last available issue published in 2008.

Coincidently, perhaps, 2008 also seems to represent a shift in company behavior. Between 2008 and 2009, Transocean went from a hot stock pick to a company that seemed to move away from the aforementioned safety-laced vision. The company had five management appointments, two vice president appointments, and a change in the nation where it is incorporated. It moved from the Cayman Islands to Switzerland.

The Transocean Connection To The Spill.

For those who might not know, Transocean was the owner and operator of Deepwater Horizon. As such, Lamar McKay, the president and chairman of BP, has alluded that the blame belongs there (despite BP accepting responsibility for the cleanup). Transocean CEO Steve Newman responded by saying it was not the time for finger pointing ... before attempting to shift blame away from his own embattled company.

If there is any truth to some of the stories surfacing in papers today, the Deep Horizon incident plays out like many construction contractor-subcontractor relationships.

Subcontractors sometimes drag their feet, which places pressure on the supervising contractor to exert influence. In one summary offered up by the Huffington Post, which criticizes the absence of two key testimony witness, it seems to be the most logical scenario, with "Donald Vidrine, BP's 'company man,' overruled the rig's chief mechanic and driller and pushed to speed up the process by remove the drilling mud faster to save BP money on the day of the tragic explosion."

It would make sense, given many of the initial delays were related to the Halliburton slowdown. However, there is one write-up that smacks of perception. If oil rigs are anything like ships, BP could probably not overrule a chief mechanic and put Transocean at risk unless the owner-operator was predisposed or ordered to follow contractual obligations and ignore the company's eroding vision to allow safety to lead to success.

The Psychology Of Influence And Erosion Of Communication.

If you worked as a pizza delivery driver and the boss told you to drive 20 miles per hour over the speed limit to shave 15 minutes off the delivery time, you might be inclined to say no. Some people might even say hell no. On Deepwater Horizon, Transocean said yes.

Once again, it seems Milgram was right. The question that ought to be asked is what convinced a chief mechanic and driller to change his mind? Was it mounting pressure from BP? Was it the lack of communication or a direct order from his company? Or was it the authorization to proceed from the regulatory agency's approval to proceed?

Answer that question andprimary party responsibility seems to land squarely. However, that is not to say the balance of participants are to be exonerated. Guilt doesn't wash off as well as oil.

From the perspective of communication alone, Transocean seems to have the most to lose. It's clearly the most defensive, sometimes flailing about. There must be a reason. Sometimes those actions are the sign of inexperienced communicators or crisis counsel. Other times, it's merely an admission that the company hasn't been observing its vision for the better part of two years.

We'll pick up on our crisis communication evaluation next Tuesday. Mostly, we're just thrilled the real priority, plugging the leak, seems to be working. In the interim, consider some other worthwhile perspectives.

• Geoff Livingston pinpoints where BP communication becomes muddled. It's an excellent point-by-point resource primer.

• Patrick Kinney of Gaffney Bennet Public Relations talks to Lynn Neary about BP's public response to the Gulf oil spill. Kinney worked for Ogilvy Public Relations when it helped BP rebrand itself as "Beyond Petroleum."

• Chris Maloney pens one post that pinpoints what BP seems to be doing right since taking full responsibility for the spill. His writeup is a bit more tempered than those who gave BP a B on crisis communication. (A "B," really? Not in my class.)

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