Let’s not blame it all on Hayward… where was the PR?

Hayward at the World Economic Forum in 2008 Image: World Economic Forum
Hayward at the World Economic Forum in 2008 Image: World Economic Forum

This blog first appeared on the Bradford University School of Management blog.

Well, it was bound to happen, he’s gone, Tony Hayward has left BP as Chief Executive and everyone can now breathe easy.

If only PR was so simple.

Scandalous payoff?

Firstly those who pushed for his removal from office are now equally troubled by the size of his payoff. Payoffs are big news! He’s taking away around a £1m salary cheque and over £10m pension pot. Scandalous? Well the reality is that the salary is part of his contract and his pension has been accrued over his quarter of a century with the company. Now I’m no Hayward apologist or fan but if you read some of the press it would appear that suddenly out of nowhere Hayward has managed to negotiate himself a brand new £11m.

Reward for failure?

It is said that Hayward has been rewarded for failure. Just like the bankers. I don’t buy this. Yes, there has been a major catastrophe on Hayward’s watch. But I think it’s difficult to argue that this was perhaps as malicious a piece of chief executive activity as we have seen in the financial sector. Hayward does not appear to have wagered future profits on an even worse oil spill!

So what is the point of this discussion? Am I just supporting his payoff?

Executive level PR

Well no, but it’s not the payoff that matters – it’s about executive level crisis handling and PR. Certainly Hayward has said some pretty daft and insensitive things. Describing the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico as a relatively tiny part of the world’s water space was not exactly sensitive to the needs of local residents. Asking to get his life back could hardly endear him to the relatives of those bereaved in the original explosion. And did he really have to go sailing? In many cases he seemed aloof, obstructive and without much empathy to what was going on around him. So was it all his fault?

At his salary/pension he has to accept responsibility. But the reality is that Hayward was not the only person in charge of BP. Yes, there is/was someone else. It could be the most difficult question in future editions of Trivial Pursuit! Have you heard of Carl-Henric Svanverg? Well I hadn’t before the disaster and I must admit that I’ve just had to look up his name! He is the chairman of BP, the man who is in overall charge of the company. I’ve just asked many people if they can remember his name. But nobody could.

What do chairmen do?

What’s the purpose of a plc chairman? To drive strategy, to manage the chief executive and, importantly, to be an important public face of the organisation. With oil gushing, workers having lost their lives and a veritable media frenzy, Carl was needed on stage. The problem was he didn’t appear, we didn’t know who he was, and he did nothing to support Hayward.

They say when the going gets tough the tough get going. Well this chairman certainly got going – right out of the picture. No doubt he was actively involved behind the scenes but that wasn’t enough. With a disaster of such monumental proportions and such a poor public display by the chief executive, Svanverg should have taken control of the public side of the disaster and told Hayward to get on with sorting out the oil spill. Hayward should not have had to spend so much time in the public eye when, as an engineer, he would have been much better off sorting out the problem. Svanverg should have sorted out publicity and the public face of the organisation. But he didn’t. He did fly over to the US on the orders of President Obama but even then we hardly saw him. Now he’s back in his office. Somewhere.

Apportioning blame

So the answer is to put all the blame on the chairman and not the chief executive is it? Maybe that’s just too simplistic. Where were the PR advisors to the company? I have been involved for many years in PR for both consumer and business facing organisations. I simply can’t fathom how organisations get things so wrong. There must be a huge corporate PR department in BP manned by suitably remunerated executives and directors. How could they advise Hayward to say the things he did? How could they have been so weak, not demanding the chairman to take the public face? How could they let BP lurch from one PR disaster to another? How could they stand by as BP was renamed British Petroleum in the US? They did, they allowed the PR disaster to happen and in truth the company has not and may never recover.

We will not know for some time the true cause of the oil spill. But as the clean up continues, surface oil disappears and America goes back to deep sea drilling (which it will), there are likely to be two lasting legacies. Years of environmental damage and a great British company tarnished forever, perhaps irreparably.

Effective PR requires skill/thought. Ineffective PR is catastrophic. Blame Hayward…but not Hayward alone.

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