British Petroleum: Accountability to Stakeholders

Can you imagine yourself in British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward’s shoes?  Well, they would be nice shoes, considering in 2009 he made $6 Million or so, a 40% increase from the previous year, while profits dropped 45% – but that’s another story.  In my Communications, Persuasion, and Negotiation class, we are doing a simulation stakeholder dialogue exercise, and I represent British Petroleum; so you could say that I am trying to walk a day in Tony’s shoes.

This is a video of Tony interacting with the press on a Louisiana beach.  Take a close look, you will see Tony avoiding the oily muck, and then yelling at a cameraman for filming him.  This seems to be an ineffective communication strategy.    How about some humility, how about acknowledging the concerns of Louisiana residents who are seeing their livelihoods buried in the oily muck?

BP’s Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg conveyed to the Financial Times his view of BP’s importance:

“The US is a big and important market for BP, and BP is also a big and important company for the US, with its contribution to drilling and oil and gas production. So the position goes both ways,” he said.  Mr. Svanberg accepted BP’s reputation had been damaged by the accident but said that should not be long-lasting “if we do the right thing”.

OK, well what is the right thing?  How about showing some concern for the workers that are being hired to clean up the mess?  Apparently, fishermen that were hired by BP have fallen ill with severe headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing.  George Jackson, a 53-year-old fisherman, took a clean-up job after the closing of local fisheries left him unemployed.  He was laying containment booms when his eyes started burning:

‘Like other cleanup workers, Jackson had attended a training class where he was told not to pick up oil-related waste. But he said he wasn’t provided with protective equipment and wore leather boots and regular clothes on his boat.  “They [BP officials] told us if we ran into oil, it wasn’t supposed to bother us,” Jackson said. “As far as gloves, no, we haven’t been wearing any gloves.”’

Of course, the BP spokesman said he was unaware of any complaints. BP seemingly does not realize that public trust of business is at a low point after the Great Recession.  Instead of being forced to show the underwater camera above the leak, why not willingly show it?

BP should be welcoming the press attention, and giving as much information as possible to stakeholders.  Yelling at cameramen will only hurt you.  With a crisis of this magnitude, and with the damage already done to BP’s reputation, an honest dialogue with the public is the one way to show that BP is accountable.  Otherwise it just looks like they have something to hide.

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