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July 19, 2010
BP Spill Likely to Serve as Template for Bad Crisis PR
 
When a company finds itself in a crisis that matches the level of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, odds are a wave of bad publicity will be coming your way regardless of what steps you take to correct the disaster and how you handle the PR aspect of the crisis. We all know that this disaster will rank as the worst environmental catastrophe in our country's history. At this point, I'd say the public relations response will also rank as one of the worst as well.

From the beginning, the parties involved, which not only include British Petroleum but Transocean and other international players, did almost nothing right when it comes to communications. Rather than portraying an image that they were taking charge of the situation, everyone almost immediately began to pass the buck and start debating who was at fault and who bore the primary responsibility of responding and cleaning up the disaster.

That type of strategy showed from the get-go that the executive suite, and particularly those involved with and concerned with the company's ongoing financial affairs, were in charge of the response. No one with any training in crisis communications would have handled things the way the parties involved did in the beginning. What has transpired since is a situation that could pose as serious a threat to BP, like Johns Manville.

Never heard of them? The company developed asbestos, which was used in a variety of commercial purposes 
following its debut in the 1930s. Virtually all the pipes in this country were made from asbestos before the advent of PVC a few decades later. Johns Manville was one of the nation's industrial giants until financial losses that were the result of lawsuits filed over the lung damage caused by asbestos drove the firm into bankruptcy. It reorganized under bankruptcy protection in the late '80s and became part of the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate in 2000. It hasn't manufactured asbestos in decades and still is a leader in a variety of building-product categories.

The point of that anecdote is that many executives are foolish enough to think that missteps will never cost them dearly, no matter how big the failure. Many always believe their company will be a large enough ship to withstand any wave, even though history is full of examples to the contrary. While no one thinks of it at the time the collapses begin, one of the key threads in many disasters of this type involve communications and the way a company handles crisis response.

This makes it vital to think about how you and your client or the company for which you work will respond to a crisis should one occur. The first and most important rule is to develop a crisis communications plan in advance and make sure everyone in the organization is aware of it and the procedures that are to be followed. All it takes is one person, no matter what level of the organization he or she occupies, to be “off script,” and major damage can be wrought.

The second rule is to realize that once a crisis hits, you'll be in the limelight and likely may stay there for quite some time. One of the reasons BP CEO Tony Hayward got so much negative press about that now-infamous golf outing is not only because people found it in poor taste, but also because they couldn't believe he would let himself get caught golfing in the midst of a crisis. Being in the limelight obviously has its perils, but it also presents a unique time to take command of a situation and reverse a bad situation quickly. Smart companies do all they can to turn the situation around as quickly as possible.

Another wise tactic to follow is to make sure that anyone in your organization or working for a client has been media trained. Many executives like to think that they've got a “gift” when it comes to media relations, but honestly few do, and you don't want to take that chance with your client. If you have a good relationship with the client, they should be willing to take your counsel when it comes to media training and other elements that are vital to the successful handling of a crisis. If they aren't willing to take your counsel, that should raise big, red flags.

With any luck, most of you won't find yourself in the midst of a major communications crisis. However, PR pros often are surprised to find themselves in the middle of a crisis -- either because they thought they did everything to avoid one or because they thought the client was too “mundane” to ever find itself in the midst of one. As is the case with any disaster, the best defense is preparation. Good preparation can not only safeguard your client relationship and the success of your PR and communications program, it might very well save your client from ruin.

 

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Cyrus Afzali is president of Astoria Communications, a New York City-based PR consultancy serving clients in financial/professional services, technology and real estate. Before opening his PR consultancy in 2004, Afzali worked at several New York agencies managing accounts for real estate, technology and legal clients. He started his career as a journalist, working as an editor and writer for nine years at outlets ranging from small, daily newspapers to CNN Financial News.

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