When a person, organization or company is publicly struggling with a crisis, the natural inclination of the news media and the public in general is to “pile on” with endless criticism.
As someone who has spent a career working in or with the news media—either covering or managing the communications of hundreds of crises—I find it very painful to watch British Petroleum executives field questions for which they clearly have no answers. Anyone who has faced the news media during a crisis can empathize.
Since the oil rig explosion triggered the crisis some six weeks ago, we have watched multiple spokespeople commenting on the spill and the “CEO rule”—the axiom that suggests CEOs speak singularly and as a last resort only—invoked, retracted and invoked again. At the heart of the CEO rule is the notion that once the CEO speaks, anything other spokespeople have to say becomes secondary and less credible. This confusion is multiplied when different spokespeople are commenting on the issue via different media outlets at essentially the same time. These “competing” spokespeople, BP CEO Tony Hayward, COO Doug Suttles and Managing Director Bob Dudley, not only run the risk of contradicting one another, they can confuse the media regarding who truly speaks for the company.
British Petroleum appears to have addressed the competing spokespeople issue with the hiring of Anne Womack-Kolton to head media relations and presumably serve as spokesperson for BP’s effort regarding the oil spill.
It will be interesting to see if this means that Hayward, Suttles and Dudley will fade into the background and Womack-Kolton pulls off the switch and becomes the face and voice of BP as the company continues to move through this issue.
Here’s hoping all the key players are successful, for all of us.