Showing posts with label BP. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BP. Show all posts

Thursday, October 21

Changing The Game: A Conversation About Oil Company Credibility

A few dozen people are claiming the Chevron disaster is the satire launched against it. Not even close.

Companies don't need to worry about or fear satire. They need to learn from it. Characterizations are seldom made of companies that don't deserve a ribbing on some level. After all, the essence of most comedy, especially satire, is finding the middle ground between tragedy and laughter. The tragedy in this case is the Chevron campaign, not the spoof.

The Tragedy Of Green Campaigns By Oil Companies.

Having worked in and with the energy industry, I've met quite a few people. Generally, they are not stupid people. Most of them are smart, like in any industry. However, even some of the smartest have nestled up comfortably inside an industry cocoon.

Most communication conversations tend to revolve around what they can't do as opposed to what they can do. And, their favorite answer for anything is "you don't understand, we can't do that because we are in the [energy] industry." As Ike Pigott said, after I asked how oil companies might gain credibility with the public, "what the oil companies *haven't* done over time is trust the public with their story. [The credibility gap] is self-inflicted."

Exactly right. Oil companies talk too much. So while the new Chevron campaign is aimed at well-researched public sentiment, Chevron seems to have heard but never really listened. If it had listened, it would have come to the realization that public trust has eroded to a point where they cannot tell their own stories anymore, at least not about their pursuit of renewable energy.

You see, when oil companies do talk about renewable energy, it almost always sounds like listening to a fiery-eyed demon promising to show you the way to heaven. "Yes," they hiss. "I might be in the business of dragging souls down here, but look, I really want to help you up because you all seem to be such nice people."

Creating A Basis Of Understanding.

Sometimes the message is the messenger. Unfortunately, for the oil industry, they aren't the right messengers. They have to trust the public with their message. They may even have to trust people they consider the enemy with their message. But even then, a message is not enough. They need to trust these people with reporting on positive oil industry actions.

There is a challenge to that. Most oil companies (much like most energy companies) aren't ready to do it. They've been spoiled by decades of only communicating the end use: brilliant light bulbs, beautifully grilled foods, toasty heaters, nice cars.

The reality is that the energy business is super ugly, smelly, and sometimes hazardous to your health. Like much of the manufacturing industry, they want to hide the ugliness as much as possible. Even when I've worked with manufacturers and energy companies, they don't want anyone to take onsite pictures unless those pictures are carefully screened.

However, proper planning could allow these behemoths to slowly pull back some of the curtain. (Not all of it. Goodness no. Not everybody looks good when they are naked.) How far can they pull it back? As far they need to in order to regain trust.

For most oil companies right now, all we see are toes. And even those toes have been polished up for the photo shoot (and sometimes after the shoot). That's not public relations. It's propaganda.

Opening Dialogues With People.

Any public relations plan by an oil company needs to be approached on two fronts. Big picture, even if they are not the only stakeholder. And specific action, almost like Chevron tried to do with its cherry-picked and polished up campaign.

The Big Picture Dialogue.

Why big picture? Because, frankly, nobody really knows how oil companies see the future. If you look at a different industry, we very clearly knew how Apple saw the future of smart phones — long before the infrastructure really existed to support them. And even if you didn't like Apple, most people liked the vision (so much so, everyone followed suit to fill demand).

What this means is that if oil companies want to be credible, they have to stop campaigning for themselves and start campaigning for a sustainable new/renewable energy future. They might even have to promote other people who are involved in the solution (much like Apple promoted certain apps). And, they may need to funnel support toward solution-oriented people as opposed to regulation-oriented people, diminishing the need to fend off what are sometimes very unfair attacks.

These big picture campaigns need to be joined too, perhaps by as many stakeholder groups as possible. Such connections might even help ward off politicians from attacking oil companies as the bad guys and painting the ultra green taxpayer subsidized companies as the good guys. That is not always the case, you know.

The Specific Action Dialogue.

Almost every oil company is pursuing varied degrees of research and development of renewable energy. In most cases, it's a very tiny, tiny percentage of their overall business. And that makes sense to some degree. There is no money in it and companies don't exist on good will alone. Likewise, over focus on tiny investments is disingenuous.

In that regard, I personally believe some of the Chevron message. On one of the many campaign threads, Desmond King, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says ...

"We invest in energy technologies that satisfy, or have the potential to satisfy, four basic criteria: economics, scale, customer expectations and density—that is, the ability to be delivered on demand and in quantity. And we never stop looking."

I believe that. It's how companies operate. They look for innovations that will make them money. For Chevron, geothermal is one of its investments. The downside, at the moment, is that it may be the largest geothermal supplier in the world, but it's still only a speck of the energy we consume.

These are the stories that need to get out. However, Chevron and other companies need other people to tell these stories. And, equally important, the public needs more proof that every advancement fits in with the big picture plan. They want to know what percentage of energy comes from renewables like that now and in the future. Plans are powerful things.

The Reality That The Public Doesn't Want To Hear.

Naturally, oil companies cannot attack the public, even if the public sometimes deserves attacking. Sometimes we collectively act like locusts, complaining that there aren't enough fields to eat after we've already eaten them. And we also complain about the waste we leave behind after we polish them off.

But, they really can't talk about that. The auto industry falls back on this conversation too much as it is. Boo hoo, they say, people don't want to buy our clean cars. It might be true, but some things are better left off the table — you know, it doesn't make sense to tell the girl you want to date that she looks fat. Besides, after decades of being sold on the great wonders of energy we consume, it feels very empty to stress "we're just keeping up with demand." Leave that one to the porn industry.

So what can they do? This is where public relations can also help, with the first step being to stop the endless prattle about how the public (government) needs to help fund the infrastructure. We already do. We fund it with every gallon purchased and every product bought. If you have to kick up gas one or two cents to pay for more renewable energy production, then do it.

When it comes to the public (government) funding renewable energy, the return is always less than private sector investments. It's just the way thing works. Government-funded or mandated projects tend to consume more than they produce (and yes, I have examples). It's why government-funded projects are best confined to things that are not profitable but desperately needed. Energy is not one of these things. It is profitable. And if some portions of it won't be, then it's best that they not be pursued.

This touches on some of the points Tim Walker and Matthew Stokes brought up. Stokes hopes that renewable energy gains more credibility in the marketplace. Walker mentioned how serious capital investments are need to make renewable energy meaningful.

Those are both solid points. Somebody other than oil companies needs to free the topic from politicians. You see, as soon as politicians grab a message, they muck it up into something worthless like kill oil now or forget renewables. Baloney. The only solution is to use our current consumption (despite its ugliness) to fund future solutions. At the same time, we have to admit that the transition isn't going to happen overnight.

Recapping Communication Tips.

Since this post tended to be conversational, I thought it might be worthwhile to recap the general concept. How could an oil industry regain credibility? After they shut up, they might ask people to open a dialogue and really listen (as opposed to hearing). After that, they might even work with people to find solutions. As for the rest, here are seven critical steps.

1. Define the vision and/or promote other people's visions toward a renewable energy future.
2. Highlight actions that prove you are moving in that direction, but let others tell those stories.
3. Make sure you define how those tiny successes fit into the vision, today and tomorrow.
4. Open up a dialogue about the challenges, inspiring entrepreneurs to provide solutions.
5. Don't hide all of the ugly side, but do work to humanize it with real people in the field.
6. Stop whining about government regulations and start dismantling their excuses to make regulations.
7. Stop asking government for money for infrastructure. That's public money. We already invest privately, every day.

People sometimes act like we have never seen technological leaps forward in this country. We do it all the time, and the adoption rate has never been faster. Many of these leaps forward required new infrastructure but that infrastructure always seemed to rise up to meet demand. Ergo, somehow we managed. The government didn't always have to fund it.

In fact, in terms of the auto industry, it couldn't be more simple. If hybrids are the future, better plugin devices need to be developed for the home (and sold with the car). Since they are hybrid cars, gas stations don't have to upgrade unless it is equitable. When it is equitable, and as the cars become less hybrid in nature, the infrastructure will keep up.

And if the government wants to be proactive and meddling heroes too? Allow people to receive a double credit for the sales tax on their income taxes. You can make up the difference by not funding some of those government-funded consumption companies. Of course, other ideas are always welcome here.

Wednesday, July 28

Telling Fibs: Why BP Photoshop Blunders Are Big News

BP Photoshop Photo
With Tony Hayworth, CEO of BP, stepping down to be replaced by Robert Dudley in October, many people have the same question. Can Dudley turn BP around, clean up the Gulf, and restore the company's reputation? At the moment, the answer is maybe.

October is a long time away, which may give Dudley a cleaner start than if he took over today. But the real challenge for BP isn't a change in leadership but a change in company culture. As one of the world's largest energy companies, that won't be an easy task.

The smallest fibs, not the largest, can be the most telling.

BP's liberal and enthusiastic use of Photoshop, not once but twice, became one of the biggest stories because the fibs were so terribly small. And that might mean something beyond the Photoshop lessons some very creative folks have left sprinkled around the Web. (It's hard to pick a favorite.)

• The company's code of conduct is being ignored.
• The culture has accepted a standard of deceit.
• The smallest of details don't really matter at all.

Years ago, when I was working on one of my first political campaigns, we discovered that the primary opponent had lied. Not only did he not have a degree in the field stated on his literature, but the college he had attended never offered such a degree.

Upon discovering this, we began a much more rigorous investigation better known as opposition research. Of about twenty points made to convince people that he was the best candidate, about 14 of them were either made up or patently false.

One fib on its own might have been forgiven by the public. But anything more than a dozen fibs was a lofty number. It didn't matter how small some of them seemed to be. Tell enough half truths, spins, and misstatements and any brand or reputation will eventually collapse. There seems to be a mountain of them related to Deepwater Horizon and the Gulf Coast oil spill.

Have you ever read the BP Code of Conduct? It begins as "one of the world’s leading companies, we have a responsibility to set high standards: to be, and be seen to be, a business which is committed to integrity."

How do you feel about that statement today, knowing that the company culture seemed to have embraced a general rule that tiny lies, little breaches of protocol, and miniscule lapses in following safety standards were somehow acceptable. As long as the paperwork looked good and nobody was hurt, did it really matter? It mattered on April 20.

On some things, it's better not to give an inch. The poorly done Photoshop pictures weren't being sent out as cover shots for the annual report. They were being provided as part of a slew of shots meant to convince us that BP was on top of the problem.

Obviously they weren't. The problem is on the inside.

*The above commenter photo can be found on Gizmodo, posted on July 22 by Jeremy "Bobafett."

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Wednesday, June 30

Bankrupting Credibility: Nobody Believes BP Anymore

When Facebook disabled the profile of Boycott BP, the reaction from 750,000 members was almost immediate. Within minutes, most people, including Public Citizen, believed a BP complaint prompted the action.

Facebook, which reinstated the content, later issued a statement that said its automated systems made the mistake. The page was reinstated after the error was discovered. Public Citizen says the statement was insufficient.

Regardless of the why, it raises interesting questions for communicators, suggesting a need for new rules governing how crisis communication is managed. And, it also serves as an indicator of how damaged the BP brand really is. Even when BP isn't responsible for attempting to censor communication, blame is automatically assigned to the company.

It's anticipated and expected, because the public expects no less from a company that has broken trust. BP has made several mistakes in attempting to control communication as opposed to managing information. It doesn't even matter if almost half of all censor incidents were created by the government. It's BP's fault.

The Rise Of The Anti-Brand, Fake Public Relations, and Instant Journalism.

Andrew Fowler suggested several steps worth considering. But any solutions have to be situational.

In the case of BP, company communicators might as well consider the site an asset. BP boycotters and BPGlobalPR actually help corral all communication about the company, providing insights into where the communication is crumbling and what miscommunication or inaccurate information might exist.

The goal isn't to control communication. There isn't much use in sharing an opinion about them. The goal needs to be focused on managing information, with an emphasis not on trying to preserve the brand (BP is well beyond that) but by clarifying factual information (and not necessarily directly).

BP does some of this well. Some of it, not so well. Some of it well. Some of it, not so well...

You may reproduce the images on the understanding that (i) any reproduction of these images will include the following acknowledgement adjacent to the image(s) used - '© BP p.l.c.' and (ii) these images will not be used in connection with any purpose that is prejudicial to BP, its officers or employees or any other third party. The images may not be sold.

From a classic crisis communication standpoint, some communicators are giving BP a "B" for hitting all the main points. Personally, I would give it an "F" and that seems pretty generous.

The reason for my low mark is simple enough. Classic crisis communication bullet points do not address several key challenges that arise when communication isn't handled properly.

The Anti-Brand. Whether spontaneous or organized by advocates with agendas, anti-brands already know the tenets of crisis communication and are well-prepared to discount every step. Any apology will be labeled insincere. Any accounting will be inadequate. Any acceptance of responsibility will not be believed.

Fake PR. Whether you borrow Fowler's term or call them Mock Brands, the general disposition is the same. These people aim to mock you and your company. Sometimes the efforts are a form of flattery; sometimes they are not. Obviously, the various fake accounts related to BP have very little to do with admiration.

Instant Journalism. While there are mainstream reporters and established citizen journalists, a crisis of this magnitude draws out people who have never been reporters before to suddenly feel compelled to cover it. En masse, handling every request just doesn't scale.

What's the remedy? As I wrote early on in the crisis, actions speak louder than words. And in this case, there were only three words tied to actions that could have helped preserve BP (and the Obama administration for that matter). What were those words?

We need help.

Imagine how different the communication might have been had this action been the cornerstone of the crisis from day one.

Skimmers would have dispatched. Booms would have been deployed. Media would have had front row seats. People would have known exactly what to do to help. Environmentalists would have been standing by. Localized emergency response crews would have been ready for multiple crises if and when they occurred. Nonprofit organizations would have coordinated economic impact. And so on and so forth.

Had this occurred, BP wouldn't even be the story and neither would the Obama administration. The story would have been the generosity of the Dutch and other countries sending skimmers. The story would have been local citizens preparing for the worst. The story would have been about a country uniting against a common problem. In sum, the story would have been about everything and everybody else except BP and except the government.

By not being the story, the damage to both could have minimized and, as a result, the respective brands preserved. Instead of a Boycott BP Facebook group, there might have been a "Help BP" Facebook group. Instead of "BPGlobalPR," there might have been an "DailyGulfHero" Twitter account. Instead of writing and reporting on all the problems, citizen volunteers documenting their own volunteer efforts, uncensored, would have quelled the need.

Neither BP nor the Obama administration seem to understand this simple truth. Action or inaction dictates brand value. Instead, they continue to make themselves the story and inexplicably tell people to sit back and rate their performance. The sheer magnitude of ego to "own this crisis" cannot be underscored enough.

They got what they asked for. You don't have to ask for it.

The first step toward a remedy for anti-brands, fake PR, and investigative journalists is to recognize that they are outcomes, symptoms that prove your actions are not aligned with your message. And knowing this, there are only four possible actions.

• Acknowledge them and let them live, unhindered. (Apple)
• Selectively interact, correcting facts but not opinions. (AT&T)
• Engage them by opening up a direct communication channel. (CBS)
• Change your actions until they no longer seem relevant or needed. (Dominos)

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Wednesday, June 9

Listening: The Most Important Lesson In Communication

Yesterday, Nevada held its primary elections. If you were listening to pundits, it was a night filled with surprises. If you were listening to the public, most races played out exactly as expected. And despite a few upsets, some people still aren't listening.

Listening isn't only about politics. Listening is about business too.

There are dozens of studies and hundreds of surveys making the rounds right now. All of them are hoping to catch a snapshot of how consumers might behave. Most of them have useful data, but most people don't listen. They only "hear."

There are several developing stories that underscore the point. It's why Utterli died. It's why Digg is struggling (but probably not dead). It's why the BP oil spill response has eclipsed Hurricane Katrina as the worst response in American history. It's why not everyone is cheering Santa Clara, Calif., for banning Happy Meal toys. And, there are dozens of more examples.

Politicians are "hearing" constituents. Business executives are "monitoring" social media. But few are "listening."

Utterli heard Utterz turned some people off at a glance, but they didn't listen to how people came to love their enduring cow mascot. Digg heard that being allowed to share content among a Digg network fueled some spammers, but they didn't listen to understand that people love to share social media while tuning out spammers anyway. There are several other social networks in jeopardy too.

BP and the Obama administration hear that people don't think they did enough, but they are not listening closely enough to understand the public wants them to admit their mistakes and that they don't have anything under control. Santa Clara elected officials that heard parents wanted something done about childhood obesity, but they didn't listen to responsible parents who consider McDonald's and Happy Meal toys a once-every-few-months treat. They can make decisions about Happy Meal toys with their own pocketbooks.

Even researchers are becoming deaf nowadays. There is another portion of the Harris Interactive poll I mentioned yesterday that proves the point. Harris Interactive couldn't understand why 70 percent of Americans gave the Constitution high marks, but low marks to the government (43 percent) and political system (23 percent) it empowers. They heard, but didn't listen.

Most Americans think that the political system to driving government is operated well beyond the Constitution, which was originally written as the people's contract with its government. This also set the stage for a volatile election cycle because people don't believe politicians are meeting their commitment to protect the Constitution.

How a lack of listening undermined several campaigns in Nevada.

If you want to understand how this all played out in Nevada, never mind what the pundits say. Sue Lowden, who is a dynamic business woman I had the pleasure to do work with years ago, didn't lose the primary because of her chicken comment. The gaffe could have easily been corrected, but her campaign didn't know how (we did, ho hum).

But what really underscored the race was that she wasn't listening. Candidate Sharron Angle was listening. People are tired of hearing about what establishment representatives want to do for them. They want elected officials to represent them.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid isn't listening. Almost immediately after Angle won (he'll face her in the general election), Reid's campaign launched a release attempting to label her ideas as "wacky." Someone didn't think to tell his staff that the block who voted for her might be put off by it. At least she's representing Nevada, some might say.

The story played out the same in the gubernatorial race. Gov. Gibbons could have turned his time in office around, but he consistently didn't listen. It wasn't the economy that cost him his incumbency. It was how he handled the economic downturn. While he made some of the right decisions, he only "heard" people didn't want tax increases. That's true (they can't afford them). But what he didn't hear is that they wanted him to demonstrate leadership. By the time he did, it was too late.

In the one race I was engaged with, it was much the same. Tim Williams was an underfunded underdog. His opponent was "anointed." Some insiders were so convinced that he could not win that they advised him to directly attack his opponent. He refused. The public is tired of games. Williams listened.

Are you listening or are you hearing?

Whether it is a political campaign or consumer product, the public is much more sensitive to who is listening and who is not. Generally, you can tell the difference in whether they react to what they hear or respond because they are listening.

Case in point: the Obama administration thinks that they didn't communicate their response to the BP oil spill clearly enough. So, he reacts by defending what the government did do. He's not listening. People don't care about what they did do or whose "ass" he intends to kick. They want someone to clean up the spill. Use hair. Use hay. Use air filters. Just clean it up and stop making it worse.

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Friday, June 4

Planning For Disaster: Communicators And PR Must Step Up

While my grandparents were poor by most definitions, my grandfather would go to great lengths to protect one of the last remnants of his family's possessions in the north woods town of Minocqua, Wisconsin. It was a summer cottage, for which he mortgaged his city home in Milwaukee every year in order to keep and maintain it until he retired. My uncle also owned a nearby home.

As one of the few four-season families in the area, my uncle was a natural leader. In addition to being to a small business owner, he served as a volunteer fire chief, mayor, and led teams to mark snowmobile trails across the partially frozen lake every winter. My grandfather, who was a former engineer and seasonal painter, was much the same.

Both men had experience in disaster planning. Coming from a small somewhat isolated community, it was a skill set that could not be left to other people. I even remember my grandfather putting his skills to good use when tornadoes interrupted a Boy Scout paper drive in the heart of Milwaukee. People immediately turned to him to lead.

Nowadays, there are fewer men like my uncle and grandfather, especially in urban areas. Disaster response tends to be left to professionals. But in considering the Gulf Coast catastrophe, it seems we need more citizens to understand response.

In fact, looking back on my recent guest host conversation on The El Show with Geoff Livingston, I think we might have invested some time on disaster planning beyond discussing how communicators can address unethical behavior. Communicators, even public relations professionals, need to establish a role within any disaster planning. It's vital that they do.

The Four Basic Tenets Of Disaster Planning.

1. Mitigation. Mitigation focuses on long-term measures to reduce or eliminate risk. These might include technologies or policies, set in place by companies or government.

2. Preparedness. Planning, organizing, training, evaluating, and improving activities that will ensure the proper coordination of efforts during a disaster.

3. Response. Response includes the mobilization of all necessary emergency services and first responders in the disaster area. Organized response requires a structure (leadership) and agility (creativeness).

4. Recovery. Recovery aims to restore the affected area to its previous state before the disaster. This almost always occurs after a disaster; it is the opportunity to assess where mitigation, preparedness, and response broke down.

Where Disaster Planning Broke Down With The Spill.

1. Mitigation. It seems obvious that neither the government nor BP (and subcontractors) had properly mitigated the potential for such a disaster. While policies were in place, it seems clear the regulatory agency did not have the technical expertise to oversee the procedural breakdown that led to increased risk at Deepwater Horizon.

2. Preparedness. To date, it seems obvious that the preparedness is almost non-existent. While the initial response saved most of the crew aboard the rig, neither BP nor the federal government has a plan for a large-scale coastal disaster. While this incident seems to have been caused by negligence, it strikes me as appalling that the government is largely unprepared for such a disaster.

3. Response. Given the failure of emergency response in the wake of Katrina, which was largely due to a complete breakdown in communications technology (I know because I've worked with the National Emergency Number Association, among other emergency response associations), it is perplexing that a new administration consisting of people who were hypercritical of and capitalized on Katrina would have done nothing to improve their ability to respond to a crisis. There is no communications technology breakdown this time. But there is a complete breakdown in appropriate federal leadership and agility over the response.

4. Recovery. Recovery is not simply litigation as our government has recently demonstrated as the answer for every problem ranging from the border issues in Arizona to the Gulf Coast oil spill. There is an apparent need to understand where the government's disaster planning continues to break down, not only with this administration but also prior administrations. The fundamental responsibility of any government is to protect its people — not from themselves — but from threats beyond the control of citizens. This time around it seems negligence played a role in the breakdown, but what about next time?

Where Any Communicator Can Effectively Play A Role.

Communicators, along with public relations professionals, have a real opportunity here to place a greater emphasis on tangible skills over manipulating public procedures. But to do it, they move beyond push marketing and puffery and embrace the much harder work that used to fall to people like my grandfather and uncle.

In many cases, they won't learn these skills from a textbook or building social media communities. It requires an ability to move from behind the desk, meet with and appreciate the men and women on the front lines, collect their input and consolidate it into a workable plan that anyone can follow.

More importantly, through their investigative work, communicators need to provide the oversight within their companies to point out where mitigation, response, and recovery is especially weak. Nothing needs to be smoothed over. If anything, people tasked with this work need to be as hard as nails, providing proper assessments to the executive team.

As I mentioned last week, bad PR is only a symptom of bad planning, I hope this helps move the conversation away from understanding and toward proactive responsibility. Communicators need not only be internal reporters, they can cut themselves from the same cloth as my grandfather and uncle.

Where Any Citizen Can Effectively Play A Role.

I might offer up the same advice to anyone. It seems apparent that while many local governments and some state governments have disaster response plans that we can count on, these plans are not scalable in the face of a disaster such as Gulf Coast oil spill, the aftermath of Katrina, the border breakdown in Arizona, or even the flooding in Tennessee.

Once they become too big for local and state agencies, the federal government is ill-equipped to respond beyond providing oversight. That means there is a greater need for citizens, each and every one of us, to have enough skills — like my grandfather and uncle did — to protect ourselves and our families in the wake of a disaster.

After all, if I was writing a family disaster plan today, the most obvious conclusion I would have to draw upon from the recovery efforts so far is that there are organizations doing all sorts of things that increase the risks to our health and happiness. And when their own mitigation breaks down, they do not have a plan to save you. We are on our own.

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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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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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Wednesday, May 26

Managing Crisis: Bad PR Is Only A Symptom

Any time a crisis involves a natural disaster, environmental catastrophe, or drawn-out tragedy, there is only one point of discussion.

When is it going to stop?

Transparency? It doesn't matter. Who is at fault? It doesn't matter. Is the federal government doing enough? It doesn't matter.

Sure, those questions are bound to be asked and asked again. Thirty-seven days is a long time to be in the midst of a crisis with multiple events. And during that time, when specific event coverage can no longer hold viewer interest, investigations start and second tier questions bubble up. But all stories always come back to that singular question. When is it going to stop?

It's the primary reason that for any communication offered up by one of the world's largest energy companies, it always circles back to live shots of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from the ocean floor. It always ends with oil washing up on the shore. It always comes back to the impact on animals and sea life or the disruption of life for residents who live within the path.

This isn't "Obama's Katrina" as some people like to call it. Katrina was over, from the time it was upgraded to a tropical storm, in five days.

The oil spill is not an event. It's multiple events.

If there is one fatal flaw in the communication strategy by BP, the Obama administration, and dozens of other vested and guilty parties, it is that they have neglected to see the obvious. This crisis is not a singular event. It's a multiple event crisis, with each event requiring a different set of answers for first tier questions.

• Provide updates and estimates related to the time and date of the event.
• Determine the what, when, where, how, and why.
• Determine who will be involved and to what extent.
• Determine the public or environmental risk of each event.
• Determine the extent of any property damage and loss of life.
• Determine which authorities will be on the scene of each event.
• Estimate and create action plans when each specific crisis will be resolved.
• Keep providing updates, with any positive outcomes, until it is resolved.

Isolating each event related to the crisis is critical if anyone hopes to manage it. Otherwise, the culmination of unrelated events will overwhelm any singular or tag team entity much like Toyota's sometimes unrelated recalls that eventually added up into a company that lost its way.

As a visual, the greater mass of the oil crisis might be likened to a giant blob that BP is attempting to hold up on its own while other vested parties stand by hoping for the best. It's not possible. Crisis and communication blobs do not act like solid mass. They act more like oil. It slips. It drips. And eventually it will coat everyone involved. It doesn't matter who gets more soiled.

Instead, the entire crisis needs to be broken up into parts. There is the leak, which was the initial cause of the crisis. There is the oil that has already seeped into the ocean, killing wildlife, damaging fishermen, and halting tourism. There are scores of smaller events that impact specific ecosystems, local communities, and residents.

The first tier priority is to stop the leak. Until then, nothing else matters.

The second tier, which occurs simultaneously, is to contain the spread of the oil and disperse it. BP is managing this effort, but relying on support from the Coast Guard and hired local fishermen. The results to date are mixed, with some unexpected consequences to the individuals exposed to chemicals.

The third tier are the dozens of events that occur anywhere oil washes up on shore. BP is attempting to mange this aspect of the spill as well. It's clearly not working, with impacted states beginning to take the heat for not doing enough.

A reorganization of the entire process is badly needed. BP clearly needs to focus its energy on stopping the leak. The federal government needed to and still needs to step up responsibility and take action on mitigating the the impact of the oil that has already escaped instead of attempting to armchair quarterback the scene with conflicting messages. And local state governments ought to have taken the lead on individual events, with support from various environmental groups, to keep the beaches clear and clean up as the oil made landfall.

Sure, BP could still act as consultants on the second and third tier events, increasing its presence as each event is resolved. And they ought not to be acting alone. Some of the companies that have a partial responsibility are all but silent on the issue.

And the blame game? Who cares about that?

Considering the amount of oil that has spilled into the Gulf Coast, the top kill solution (if it works) is only the beginning of the environmental events to come. The blame will eventually come to light as investigations continue. What will also be the subject of great debate is why the federal government sought to look like it was in control early on, but then demonstrated only a presence.

Public relations alone cannot solve such a crisis alone. Neither can the various boycotts. If anything, boycotts could make the situation worse despite the reasons some people say to move ahead.

Healthier ways to participate in the crisis at this time include any number of efforts. One beneficiary of a satirical Twitter account BPGlobalPR is to raise funds for the Gulf Restoration Network. The boycotts, if any, can wait until after the spill.

Public relations is always reliant on the actual plan.

When any plan to deal with a crisis is bad, the symptom is improper communication. For its part, BP has attempted to keep communication channels flowing, but it is clearly holding back. They seem to be focused on a singular thought that if they fix everything and then prove themselves to be only partly to blame, then they may be able to justify the clean green logo.

However, as Geoff Livingston points out, that is not the case. He writes that the collective "crisis PR has been terrible with missteps on resolution, horrific transparency on possible solutions, false accounting of actual daily oil spill amounts, the policing of beaches to prevent media reporting, bickering between BP and the EPA, dispersants’ negative impact, a new climate bill that endorses further off-shore drilling, 19 new off-shore drilling licenses since Deep Horizon, etc., etc., on and on."

He says the crisis might be insurmountable for the company. I'm not sure yet, but only because BP is much more than BP. BP is Castrol, Arco, Aral, am/pm, and even the Wild Bean Cafe. It's also a leader in biofuel technology. It's investing in solar technology. It's investing in wind. It's investing in emerging coal conversion technologies. And the list goes on.

You won't read about many of these efforts for the time being. BP is smart enough to keep the focus where is belongs, but there is more to the company than meets the eye. Where it is less adept, obviously, is in its ability to work beyond its internal sphere. Perhaps they think they are too big to do that nowadays. But they are not the only ones.

Generally, in the past, sometimes the federal government would be slow to take charge and delegate a national disaster. But ultimately, the federal government would. This time around, the crisis plan matches the PR plan. Every stakeholder in the oil spill crisis has its own message. And while it is said in many different ways, the underlying theme is "not me."

Other voices around the Web with a focus on communication.

• The Dirty Business of BP's Corporate Reputation Clean Up by Jennifer Janviere.
Its Fake Twitter Stream Has Twice the Followers of the Real Thing by Jim Edwards
How Not To Get “Brandjacked” Like BP Global PR by Olivier Blanchard

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