BP's Boss Learns the Hard Way That Language Matters

June 7, 2010

BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, was back in London at the weekend to face the British media as shocking images of the impact of the oil spill on wildlife continue to dominate the front pages of newspapers. With beaches blighted, fishermen losing their livelihoods and BP rapidly losing its reputation and value, the strategy of putting the CEO centre stage is clearly the right one. That said, Tony Hayward is fast learning about the risks of striking an inappropriate tone in public.
 
Whilst he has rightly sought to directly engage with media with a series of broadcast and print interviews, he prompted new disbelief last week by telling Gulf coast residents on television: “I would like my life back”. This was clearly an unfortunate follow-up and somewhat negated his apology for the disaster which ran as follows:

“The first thing to say is I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their (residents) lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
 
If ever there was an example of why it’s so important for executives to practice their key messages before they speak, then this must surely be it. Hayward is widely seen as a smart guy — but his words were quickly broadcast on America’s Today show before going viral on the Internet and filtering into the British press. And in this case, it’s not just his tone but his demeanour that’s causing comment.
 
On British television news a few days ago, Hayward was shown on a Louisiana beach surveying machinery to help stem the oil flow. The BBC correspondent described him as “at times looking lost”.
 
His personal response as a CEO was something picked up in Friday’s edition of the New York Times.
 
Under huge pressure to stop the leak and keep his job, Hayward now needs to ensure he’s as careful in the attention he is paying to communications as he is to BP’s efforts to clean up the damage done by the oil spill itself.
 
Let’s hope his trip back to London at the weekend enabled him to see his family – and gives him renewed energy to get on with the job.

Richard Griffiths is Director, Strategic Communications, at Ketchum London. His areas of expertise include leading message development sessions, building and shaping stories for different audiences and preparing executives for interviews with media. A former BBC business reporter, he still heads back to the studio from time to review the newspapers for the BBC. He is a news junkie, keen cyclist and enthusiastic wine drinker.