I Want To Live Like Common People: BP and the Great PR Divide
After his slicing, dicing, and grilling by Congress, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward has been relieved of some of his duties, with responsibilities for managing the company’s PR response shifting to chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. This is just two days after BP’s public relations debacle descended into class farce when Svanberg, a wealthy Swede, stated that, “We care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies, or greedy companies, don’t care. But that is not case in BP. We care about the small people.”
Can Swanberg up BP’s PR game? I’m doubtful. Granted he’s not a native speaker of English, and “small” probably is not what he meant to convey. But consider the power of just two words, “small people,” when spoken by a leader in the wrong context. As I listened to this, all I could think about was William Shatner’s rendition of Pulp’s “Common People,” the story of a rich young woman of questionable judgment who decided she wanted to experience life on the other side of the class divide:
“I want to live like common people,
I want to do whatever common people do,
I want to sleep with common people,
Making this connection made me realize that we’ve moved beyond anger at the BP to outright contempt at just how out of touch with reality the company’s leadership seems to be.
Think about what a difference it would have had if Svanberg left out the word “small”: “We care about the people.” And we won’t cut him slack because throughout this crisis, BP leaders have been so remarkably clumsy in their use of language, and it has cost the company very dearly. Consider the following statements by Tony Hayward:
“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” This comes across as remarkably narcissistic and self-pitying. Suppose instead Hayward had said. “This is a terrible thing, not just for the many people in the Gulf whose livelihoods are threatened, but also for the many fine people at BP…”
“I’d like my life back.” Suppose instead he had said, “At at time when people in the Gulf are suffering, I’ve giving this my all. Like many other people at BP, I’m paying a price with my family, but it’s what I need to do…”
“I’m not a politician.” A not-so-subtle put-down of the very people who are going to call BP to account. Simultaneously an admission of incompetence, because every CEO, and especially those who lead global companies extracting resources, needs to have tremendous political savvy.
“I’m a Brit so sticks and stones can hurt your bones, but words never break them.” All that’s missing here was “nyah, nyah.” Plumbing new depths of tone-deafness, Hayward again comes across as self-pitying, while at the same time insinuating that anti-British bias is driving American reaction and not the millions of gallons of oil fouling the Gulf, while at the same time evoking upper class British snobbery: a trifecta.
Given just how out of touch the senior leadership of BP is, perhaps it is time for them to live like common people.
Read the original post here, by Michael Watkins @ Harvard Business Publishing