PR Lessons from the Top: Tony Hayward's Biggest Gaffes

Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP has a doctorate in geology
Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP has a doctorate in geology

Tony Hayward's background isn't in business or marketing. Rather, the CEO of BP (BP) has a doctorate in geology, an education that taught him a lot about drilling for oil but precious little about dealing with the press. Still, since the Gulf oil spill began on April 20, the famously gaffe-prone executive has illustrated several key lessons in business leadership and crisis PR management. Here are five of our favorites:

Try to Show Empathy: In a crisis situation, it's important to let victims know that you feel their pain. However, Hayward may have gone a little too far when he famously complained about his own suffering, telling reporters on May 31: "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused to their lives. ...There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I'd like my life back."

Empathy is good. Whining that your massive oil spill has disrupted your life is not so good. Going to a yacht race a few weeks later is really not good.

Try to Show Empathy, Part II:
When tragedy strikes -- for example, when a family member dies on a burning oil rig -- many people ask themselves what they did to "deserve" the punishment that they received. However, when you have spent millions of dollars lobbying for less restrictive safety regulations and have amassed 760 safety violations over the past three years, you might not want to be overheard asking a fellow exec "What the hell did we do to deserve this?"

When in Doubt, Try Misdirection: Even after the cleanup started getting underway, Hayward's problems were far from over. After seven cleanup workers were hospitalized with complaints of nausea, headaches, nose bleeds, dizziness and chest pains, doctors surmised that they might have had negative reactions to the toxic dispersant BP was using to break up the oil spill. Poo-pooing the notion, Hayward suggested another potential culprit: "I am sure they were genuinely ill, but whether it was anything to do with dispersants and oil, whether it was food poisoning or some other reason for them being ill, you know, there's a -- food poisoning is surely a big issue when you've got a concentration of this number of people in temporary camps, temporary accommodations. ...You know, armies march on their stomachs."

Doctors have still not pinpointed the cause of the cleanup workers' illnesses, although some have noted the similarities between the Gulf coast symptoms and those suffered by workers after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Meanwhile, the number of sick workers continues to increase.

Control Expectations: On May 18, 29 days into the spill, scientists were already calling the devastation "catastrophic." Hayward, however, was sanguine, telling a reporter: "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest." This was a follow-up to an earlier comment in which he noted that "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." In other words, it's going to be a long time before you can run your car on Gulf of Mexico water.

Take the Long View: In May 2009, almost a year before the Gulf coast oil spill, Hayward gave a lecture at the Stanford Business school in which he outlined the many problems that he faced when he came to BP. A major issue, he noted, was that "We had too many people that [sic] were working to save the world. We had sort of lost track of the fact that our primary purpose in life is to create value for our shareholders...our primary purpose in life was not to save the world."

BP's "Beyond Petroleum" rebranding was, admittedly, the work of Hayward's predecessor, Lord Browne, and Hayward was focused on developing the company's core competencies. Then again, with only 6% of BP's capital expenditure going into renewable energy sources, it's not as if the company's radical change ever extended much beyond its PR campaign.

Honorable Mention: Follow the Leader: To be fair, Hayward's boss hasn't set a high bar for sensitivity and media readiness. On June 16, Carl-Henrik Svanberg, Chairman of the Board of BP, expressed his concern for Gulf residents by telling reporters: "I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don't care, but that is not the case with BP. We care about the small people." Not surprisingly, the "small people" of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida were unimpressed with Svanberg's comments.

Still, as some commentators have pointed out, Svanberg's first language is Swedish, and something may have gotten lost in translation. Hayward, unfortunately, doesn't have the same excuse. In the CEO's case, his mastery of the English language may be the problem.