May 03

It wasn’t our accident


Mar 3 BP CEO Tony Heyward has been beautifully trained to handle the mainstream U.S. media questions in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill.

He begins each interview by thanking the anchors 'for the opportunity,' then makes it quite clear that, while the oil spill wasn't BP's fault, the clean-up is the corporation's responsibility.

He deflected questions wondering why BP so badly miscalculated the initial amount of damage by likening the repair work to 'performing open heart surgery 5,000 feet below the water' (that phrase has some PR person's fingerprints all over it). Finally, when given the chance, he waxes poetic about the 'armada' of ships and 'fleet' of planes BP has harnessed to 'contain' the spill.

From a PR standpoint, BP is making the best of a horrific situation that, excuse me, they caused. Their only mistake is blaming the oil rig owners for the spill (pointing the finger at others never works in these situations, but lawyers insist upon it in order to limit future civil and criminal lawsuits).

All in all, though, Heyward did a nice job staying on message and conveying BP's key message points. When I see a CEO under duress, I always chuckle and think about Brad Irwin, the president of North American operations for Cadbury-Schweppes. Check out this video. The guy was so well trained (or, so poorly trained, depending upon one's P.O.V.) that he was unable to think on his feet and answer any other, industry-specific questions. In the end, he comes cross as a buffoon whose only answer to macro questions is to hawk his new sugarless gum.

A CEO like Heyward can calm fears and inspire confidence in the midst of chaos. An executive such as Irwin can create a mini-crisis by being inflexible, incompetent and inept.

So, here's hoping BP can get the spill contained sooner rather than later (and that Cadbury's in-house PR team and agency partners will study Mr. Heyward's performance). In fact, they should chew on it awhile before they place another high-ranking official on network television.