Communication Lessons from an Oil Spill
You've probably been watching some of the news reports and interviews about the massive oil spill off the Louisiana coast. It’s a heartbreaking story. It’s also a communications case study in the making. As I have listened to BP executives respond to the crisis, I’ve been thinking about what our friend and organizational consultant Chris Majer www.humanpotentialproject.comcalls accountable communication. Chris talks about it as a hallmark of effective team interactions. We know it’s also the cornerstone of effective organizational communications.
In the beginning, I wondered how BP would react to the spill. Would the company show ownership of the problem? Would its leaders communicate from a place of strength, or would they go down the slippery slope we know so well where organizations do everything they can to dance around accountability? At first, I thought they were doing fairly well. BP leaders were quick to own the problem, put the CEO out in front, show action and acknowledge the reality of the situation. They said they would make it right.
But public trust is eroding.The talk shows are full of armchair quarterbacks accusing the company of lying and evading. What went wrong? A central theme in the past week has been the estimate of how many barrels are spewing out a day. The company is being accused of underestimating it and withholding information. This underscores a key principle of accountable communication---companies have to tell the whole truth.As soon as they appear to be covering something up, the public loses confidence.In this era of public mistrust of corporations, it is even more important to show transparency. Companies have to earn our trust and work hard to keep it.
Time will tell how this crisis will reflect on the company. While its stock has been battered, this could be an opportunity for the company’s brand to grow stronger in the long run. Many companies have emerged from a crisis stronger. But it’s not easy.Consumers can forgive, but we expect companies to do the right thing and to tell the truth—not in the end, but in the beginning and all the way through.
Accountable communication isn’t always easy. Companies often worry it will open them to legal risk or that others will take advantage of any perceived weakness.What communicators know is that it’s the only effective way through tough times. When you take the long view, showing accountability and ownership quickly and strongly is always the right path. It’s the right thing to do and it’s good business.