Occasional thoughts from a young adult reveling in the messiness of life.
While all eyes are on the ever-expanding oil slick in the gulf, PR professionals and corporate communicators everywhere are cringing every time BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, opens his mouth. He has become the poster child for a walking PR disaster, and much of the news coverage and blog articles have focused on his greatest-hit sound bites such as “I want my life back” and him referring to the spill as “relatively tiny.”
It’s certainly easy to play Monday morning quarterback and talk about the other ways he could have answered questions and how BP could be handling the crisis communications better, but the problem to me isn’t the foot-in-mouth disease with which BP seems to be afflicted.
Major corporate disasters are rooted in a culture where clear, effective communication standards have not been implemented or supported. I think the poor PR is simply indicative of the poor communications that most likely led to the disaster in the first place.
As numerous reports come out of the congressional hearings regarding what events preceded the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, it appears that it all comes down to a meeting where front-line employees and managers (from both BP and Transocean) argued over how to proceed on a particular procedure. Below is an excerpt from an NPR article.
Deepwater mechanic, Douglas Brown, said:
“I recall a skirmish taking place between the company man, the OIM, and the tool pusher and driller concerning the events of the day. The driller was outlining what was going to be taking place, whereupon the company man stood up and said, ‘No, we have some changes to that.’ “
The company man was from BP, the company that leased the drilling rig. The others were employees of Transocean, the company that operated it. The dispute involved removing drilling mud from the drill pipe prior to shutting down the well, and the impact that might have on allowing gas to seep out.
Brown said the Transocean employees eventually — but reluctantly — agreed to do what the BP official wanted. He told investigators he was in the engine room later that night when he heard gas alarms going off and the engines starting to accelerate. Then came the first of two large explosions.
This sounds eerily familiar to the events that led up to another national disaster, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrating into pieces as it re-entered the atmosphere in 2003.
I think of this disaster because I did an in-depth communications analysis for a seminar paper in my master’s program (you can read the full text here). Just as with NASA’s previous shuttle disaster, Challenger, a major communications breakdown between engineers and “management” led to poor decision making, and eventually, the loss of innocent lives.
When will large corporations realize the importance of communications? What can we do to empower and educate front-line employees such as engineers and mechanics on the true art of persuasion in communications? How many more lives will be lost before we truly get it right?
There’s a quote from the T.V. show, The West Wing, that has always stuck with me. In episode entitled “The Crackpots and these Women,” the administration’s director of communications says, “By changing some words…the world can move—or not—by changing some words.”
That is certainly true in the case of the shuttle disasters, and I imagine that it will also be the case with the BP oil spill.