PR Disasters: 2nd Lesson Learned — It’s not about you; it’s about everyone around you (9/5/13)

Public relations is all about how the public perceives an organization — not about how that organization sees itself.

My favorite PR lesson is a very simple one:  It’s not about you; it’s about everyone around you.  

When Tony Hayward, CEO of British Petroleum, was interviewed days after one of the worst oil spills in world history had begun, he made the grave error of talking about himself and how the oil spill had affected him.

“I want my life back” illustrates the critical lesson a business must always remember—when some type of harm creates victims or potential victims, the message must stay focused on the victims and what is being done to make things right.

The instinct for self-preservation will always kick-in during critical issue or crisis moments, and the focus naturally turns inward to the impact on those who must manage the problem. The challenge is this: leadership must stay focused on those who are directly or indirectly impacted by the issue (e.g., customers, investors, employees) while it is intensely focused internally to mitigate and remedy the problem. Those internal processes— which often include dealing with significant legal issues—must not be the focus of communications unless it somehow relates to affected stakeholders.

Here’s an example:

A workplace accident causes an employee’s death. The accident is an isolated one and there are no current risks to other employees. While leadership will be considering the legal, regulatory and financial risk and obligations, it must simultaneously be focused on the deceased employee, the employee’s loved ones, colleagues and the community. The messages must be focused on how they are feeling, what they are experiencing, what happened and how the company is working to ensure that this never happens again to any employee. Communications concerning other matters, like regulatory oversight/fines, liability and the like can come later if necessary.

Tony Hayward learned this lesson the hard way when he went off script and adlibbed a response to a reporter’s question. Tony Hayward caused BP to project an image that the company was more focused on getting it’s executives back to their Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and less concerned with the myriad problems created by the oil spill.

Critical questions to ask: “Who is affected, and what do they need to hear?”