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BP: Why can't they say they are sorry and trying to make sure it will never happen again?

Why BP's Cold Language and Finger-Pointing Will Hurt Them in the End

As I read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal every day, I ended up reading BP's huge "Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Response" ad twice todayI suspect it was written by their lawyers, as there are things it does not contain that really bug me and will bug others and -- by the way, are bad crisis management, if you believe the best studies on what leaders can do to protect the reputation and long-term financial performance of their firms when the shit hits the fan (See this research and also recall how Tylenol dealt with their crisis in the 1980's).

1. There is not a hint of human compassion; it is cold, carefully crafted language. It simply lists facts, and it offers no sympathy to the people who died, none to those whose livelihoods will be affected, and none about the animals who are dying.  The language is utterly without a hint of warmth or empathy for anyone.  This gives me the creeps, and I believe it reinforces the perception they are a cold, heartless company with executives who care about no one but themselves. It is almost as if the language is designed to convey the message "we are cold and calculating people.")

2. There is not a hint of an apology or admission of mistake.  The language is very indirect and legalistic. They say: "BP has taken full responsibility for dealing with the spill.  We are determined to do everything we can to minimize impact.  We will honor all legitimate claims."  Perhaps they can't apologize or admit error, but look at research on executives and firms that weather crises more effectively (a great example is Maple Leaf Foods, see the CEOs apology). Researchers who study errors or setbacks have shown that the problem with this strategy of pointing fingers at others and not accepting blame is that when you talk as if you are a hapless victim of a problem caused by others or by forces that no one can control (as BP seems to be doing), you also are seen as lacking the power to fix it... it amplifies the perception that you are out of control and don't know what you are doing.

3. Finally, and this is also consistent with research on how to deal with a crisis or failure, I see not even a hint in this statement that BP is doing everything (or anything) within its power to learn from this horrible spill so that it is unlikely to ever happen again, and if it does, so they will be able to respond more quickly and effectively next time. This kind of language and attitude is crucial for both perceptual and objective reasons. From a perceptual standpoint, talking about what is being learned conveys more compassion and also that all those people and animals will not have died and suffered in vain. From an objective standpoint, clearly, there are many lessons from this fiasco, and any competently-run company learns from mistakes -- indeed, I think all of us wonder what they might already be doing differently in their many other drilling platforms.  I think that talking about that would help them.

There is plenty of blame to go around here, and I am sure that BP does not deserve all of it.  But I think they could handle both the optics and objective elements of this crisis far more effectively (and I wonder if in the end the lawyers' advice will cost them more money, as while it may enhance their ability to assert plausible deniability for damages at times, it will also enrage the public, politicians, and prosecutors who will be motivated by their heartless response to go after them with special vehemence).

No doubt, there are many facts I don't know about what is really happening.  But these omissions disturb me and, if you are a leader, you might want to use this as an opportunity to think about how you would handle such a PR nightmare if it hit your organization.  It is a lot cheaper and easier to learn from BP's errors than from your own -- although there is Randy Komisar's interesting argument that our own failures are more instructive than others because they hurt so much more! 

Bob Sutton is an organizational psychologist, Stanford professor, and author of five books including bestseller The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss (September, 2010).

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