Lessons From the BP Oil Spill

Eight ways to reconnect after a disaster.

August 05, 2010
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5. Don’t shy away from tough questions.

There’s nothing easy about reconnecting after a disaster. Regardless of the situation, there will always be tons of difficult questions people want answered. Make sure you’re prepared to answer them, says Kuzmeski.

“BP executives have almost seemed annoyed that people are questioning them,” she says. “The company’s spokespeople often come off as dismissive. When dealing with a disaster, if you have to answer a question a thousand times, just answer it. When you’re dismissive or act like you don’t want to answer a certain question, you diminish the public’s trust in you.

“BP has tried to avoid answering certain questions, and it has turned out that things were worse than BP was putting forward,” she adds. “It’s another example of how the company actually made things worse for themselves by not being upfront about all the issues.”

6. Be authentic—but please think before you speak.

When a disaster strikes, too often companies go to a script, says Kuzmeski. That’s understandable, because you naturally want your communication to be well-thought-out. But it’s important to understand your communication also has to be authentic. Remember, people connect with other people—not with scripts, she says. So be sure to take a break from the “official” party line from time to time and let your human side show.

There’s one important caveat, however, she notes: Don’t be “authentic” in the ill-advised way BP’s executives have been.

“For the most part, after the spill the company has stuck to scripted apologies and statements,” she says. One of the few times dismissed CEO Tony Hayward went off script, though, he angered people by saying he wanted his life back. "Sure, he was being authentic, but the statement definitely took away from the scripted apologies the company had previously offered. If your level of authenticity doesn’t match your scripted statements, it might be best to stick to the script. If you do choose to speak your mind, choose your words very carefully."

Another example of not thinking before you speak: “In the company’s recent talk with President Obama, it was revealed that Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg mentioned BP’s concern for ‘the small people’ being affected by the oil spill. Naturally, it was a statement that rubbed many the wrong way,” says Kuzmeski. “The take-away lesson is that people need to feel you truly mean what you’re saying, but what you’re saying needs to help your cause, not hurt it.”

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