If you’ve gotten to know much about me at all over the past couple of years, you’ve come to know that when it comes to reading books that can improve my life, business or distract my mind, I’m usually reading two or three at a time like a sponge absorbs water. And I’m an active reader; writing notes all over a page is every bit as important as turning the next one. I get more out of a book when it’s one I can write in, too.
One such book I’ve been working through is Jason Fried and Davide Heinmeier Hansson’s release called Rework. You know, the 37Signals guys?
So as I was going through this book, I came to a special section and chapter, (each one is a 1/2 a page, to a full page, and seldom more than 1.5 pages) entitled Own Your Own Bad News. It’s in the Damage Control section of the book, which was published in March 2010. March is key here.
Own Your Own Bad News
Their premise in this principle isn’t a new one, particularly to me; someone whose worked for two governors, a presidential campaign, and numerous state and local campaigns; as well as six years almost nightly on TV as the spokesman for the Dallas Independent School District with it’s 163,000 students, 20,000 employees, and 1.5 parents for each kid. The message from the 37Signals guys is this: If you don’t tell your own bad news, someone else will, and “you’ll be better off if it’s you.”
For six years I practiced this belief in DISD. That made some mad with me. “We should just tell them we have ‘no comment’ or ‘it’s under investigation.'” “Piss on the media.” I’ve heard it all. One of the things that happened between myself, the district and the Dallas media, which consists of seven TV stations, two large talk radio stations, The Dallas Morning News and a host of other weekly publications and two or three widely read blogs in the city, is that over time, they knew they were going to get a straight story from me whether I could go on the record with them or not and whether the topic was positive or not.
They knew they weren’t going to get meley mouse tactics of hide the ball. That typically meant they didn’t dig as hard for dirt. If we’d made a mistake, we owned up to it. And quickly. My phone was on 24-hours a day, and everyone in town knew it. And when they needed someone out in front of a school at 5 a.m. for live shots, I was there, as former Fox 4 reporter Jeff Crilley and now with is own media firm used to say, “Feeding the beast.”
I’ve not been on Dallas TV for three years now. I still go into places like Walmart, etc. and people ask me about the district. There was trust there. There was a pact between the district and the viewing area–we don’t hide from bad stories.
And that’s the next premise of the book. “People will respect you more if you’re open, honest, public and responsive to a crisis.”
This created a controversy amongst some in the district and the Dallas PR community. Some old-school PR types said the “under investigation route” is the only way to go. You never admit to having done something wrong, they’d say. Others believed in a good practice called bridging your way out it–You acknowledge and then bridge to your positive message. This beats the hell out of just saying we’re not commenting so suck it.
The book then pulls up an example from 1989 and the Exxon Valdez spill. It says, “Exxon made the mistake of waiting a long time before responding to the spill and sending aid to Alaska. Exxon’s chairman failed to go there until two weeks after the spill. The company held news briefings in a Valdez, a remote Alaskan town that was difficult for the press to reach.”
The book then offers the contrast with descriptions of how an Ashland Oil storage tank spilled oil into a river near Pittsburgh around the same time.
“Ashland Oil’s chairman, John Hall, went to the scene of the Ashland spill and took charge. He pledged to clean everything up. He visited news bureaus to explain what the company would do and answer any questions. Within a day, he had shifted the story from a rotten-oil-company-does-evil narrative to a good-oil-company-tries-to-clean-up story.”
The book recommends that the message should come from the top. Though this is nothing revolutionary, it is spot on.
- The highest-ranking person available should take control in a forceful way.
- The message should be spread far and wide.
- Don’t try to sweep it under the rug.
- “No comment” is not an option.
- Apologize the way a real person would and explain what happened in detail.
- Honestly be concerned about the fate of your customers–then prove it.
The Gulf Oil Spill
The book Rework came out in March 2010. A month later–The Gulf Oil Spill happened at the hands of British Petroleum.
We got to meet Tony Hayward shortly thereafter. A nice enough looking bloke, but it soon became apparent he’d gone to the Gulf and had left his PR Helmet back across the pond.
After some dithering about who really was responsible, BP finally owned up to being at fault.
At the same time, The White House was doing it’s fair share of botching the job on this, too. Anyone remember how about a week after the president and his administration started with the tired language of “we’ve been in control all along?” For prosperity and the hundreds of white papers and studies that will be done on this for years to come, you don’t wait a week in to decide if you own a disaster. That happens immediately, whether you’re BP, The White House, a school district, or even in your own daily life with your wife and family.
So a week went by and we got information saying the leak really wasn’t too bad. Then the two groups that were “in control” began to publicly discredit the other about how much was really leaking out of the broken well at any one time. Neither were trying to sweep this under the rug. They were just hoping like hell it stayed at the bottom of the ocean, you know, about a mile deep.
Then there were the series of media faux pas of Tony Hayward. The remark of his “wanting his life back” probably will be as equally remembered as that indelible haunting image of the well going full bore, and the oil and tar covered birds along the Gulf Coast. And when the Brits finally hailed Hayward back across the pond, he got back in time to take part in a yacht race.
It was here on DaddyClaxton.com we were suggesting that Mr. Hayard get out of his British aristocratic attire and get a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a ball cap and head to some places like Lambert’s Cafe in Foley, AL, to the coastal casinos in Mississippi, and the fishing towns of Louisiana and spend some time listening to real people because he was as out of place in the Gulf Region as, well, the oil is to the formerly white beaches of the Gulf Coast. He didn’t fit in. He also made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t going to try to either. After all, he wanted his life back.
So for the last two points of 37Signals‘ on damage control, Tony Hayward got a big fat F.
Today’s news is that Hayward will be stepping down and headed to Siberia, or somewhere near so in Russia. That’s kind of poetic having grown up watching Hogan’s Heroes or any good Cold War movie about the place of punishment in Russia was a one-way trip to Siberia. Ha, they even used to call KI Sawyer AFB where I lived for several years, “KI SIBERIA.” You get the point. Though it was an important, strategic SAC base, the cold winters, were, cold.
Today’s article says:
Hayward, 53, who has a Ph.D in geology, had been a well-regarded chief executive. But his promise when he took the job in 2007 to focus on safety “like a laser” came back to haunt him after an April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and unleashed a deep-sea gusher of oil.
Hayward’s early attempts to shift blame to the rig operator, Transocean, failed to take the heat off BP. Later remarks that the amount of oil pouring into the Gulf was “tiny” compared to its volume of water and Hayward’s whining that he would “like my life back” made him an object of scorn. That emotion turned to fury when Gulf residents heard that Hayward spent a day at a fancy English sailing race in which his yacht was competing at the height of the disaster.
David Cumming, head of U.K. equities at Standard Life Investments, said the board’s reported intention to remove Hayward is an act of “political appeasement.”
“I think they have taken view that his departure will relieve some of the political and media pressure in the U.S. and help BP rebuild its U.S. reputation,” Cumming told BBC radio.
The Lessons To Be Learned
There’s still much to be learned about how to handle such a tremendous disaster. There’s so much to look at what Hayward did and ask, “What the hell was he thinking?”
And for what it’s worth, even being in Siberia, he’s still going to be chuckling all the way to the bank. He might not be CEO, but he’s still going to be in the money.
The White House hasn’t handled this well either. The federal government, with it’s huge size and inefficiency, hasn’t been anything to write home about either. It’s all really just been one huge mess and a signature that government in Washington isn’t the answer to all of life’s problems.
Something to Look Forward To
Jason Fried and Davide Heinmeier Hansson have got a new book to write. Perhaps it should be called, “How to get a first-class ticket to Siberia in 97 days or less.”
(Reader’s Note: This post also will be mirrored over on my business Web site where I can be hired to do work for you or your firm in crisis situations, for positive public relations, or developing a healthy social media campaign to help your organization build a relationship of trust in the marketplace. Please check us out at ClaxtonCreative.com)