Stoicism? Stubborness? Or Just Plain Stupid?

Posted on 6/24/10

As I watched BP CEO Tony Hayward testify before Congress last week, he appeared so bored and detached I imagined a thought running through his head: “These bloody Yanks…they are so reactionary and emotional. They would have never survived the blitz…”

I’ve been asking my British friends if the lack of “passion” from BP (both real and perceived) might be chalked up to old fashioned British stoicism. Keeping “a stiff upper lip” as it were. Then I thought it might just be stubbornness, believing they could “ride into valley of death” like the famous Light Brigade and emerge, if not intact, at least heroic.

But I’ve concluded that BP management just doesn’t get us, and, worse, may not have even tried. Their initial dispassion about the plight of the gulf states betrayed a gross ignorance about the speed and ferocity with which America’s media and political institutions can shift into attack mode.

They badly miscalculated our tendency to get riled up, and to stay that way while images of angry oystermen, displaced tourists and oil soaked pelicans flood the airwaves and clog the blogosphere.

When they started drilling for oil in the Gulf, someone on the BP PR team might have considered “what if?” and done a bit of contingency planning to predict the public reaction and prepare to deal with the outcry the right way, with compassion, contrition and complete transparency. It’s not rocket science, but does require a little homework to gain some insight into the core values that shape the culture of the region, and a sense of how, based on history, the local folks will react in the event their livelihoods and lifestyles are threatened.

Armed with such insight and knowledge, they might have modeled out the depth of the public reaction, and revised their “crisis communications” plan accordingly. It’s a lesson for all multi-national companies operating a risky enterprise in a foreign nation. A little local knowledge and understanding can go a long way to making you a better citizen and more responsible business partner.

Despite our shared language and close ties in culture, economics and geopolitics, (or perhaps because of it) it appears the folks who run BP figured they’d “wing it” and deal with the public, media and government fallout as they go. Which, figures, I suppose, since that’s how they’ve been dealing with everything else related to this mess.