Before we exit 2010, it's worth reflecting a bit more about why two premier British companies—BP and Rolls Royce—fouled up so royally on the PR front as crises beset them during the year. The crises, of course, didn't just happen; company procedures had something to do with them. But candid corporate posture in the midst of adversity is what effective public relations are about. Neither BP nor Rolls Royce communicated effectively. Instead, they covered themselves with disdain. Richard Wachman, city editor of The Guardian, considers why that occurred.
Turning inward when the public expects candor is a big part of the problem.
"In the period immediately after the explosion, BP needed to be out there engaging with its stakeholders," Wachman writes. "But it retreated into itself and was reluctant to admit to shortcomings. Hayward's memorable comment that he 'wanted his life back' midway through the crisis was like throwing petrol onto the fire.
"Sir John Rose, chief executive of Rolls-Royce, also played things badly," Wachman adds. "The company has never been good at communicating with the outside word. As the Ministry of Defence is one of its biggest customers, perhaps that should come as no surprise, but when its engine failed last month, Rolls should have been quick to open up lines to investors to explain how it planned to fix things. Instead, there was an almost deafening silence. Shareholders were left to fret about how much the accident would cost in lost orders or litigation."
We might add the memorable comment of the beleaguered spokesman for Metropolitan Edison Co. at an early point in the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power accident, "We don't have to tell you everything we do."
For PR learning purposes, the point seems to be that, under pressure, untrained (we presume) executives retreat into themselves, forgetting for fateful moments that they are addressing a huge public audience with a legitimate interest in what happened at their businesses. No time for disdain, that, but it takes PR awareness and commitment to resist the human impulse to retreat inwardly.
"But what Rolls and BP really should have learned by now," Wachman observes, "is that the road to redemption lies neither in burying your head in the sand or playing down bad news. The key is to put your head above the parapet and engage via straight, honest talking, even if it means saying "sorry, everyone, we screwed up".
That may be what we most need to remember from the PR follies of 2010—and 1979.