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A very British problem

It’s often said that Brits are a bit rubbish at talking. British men in particular. Perhaps the upper lip is so stiff that it makes it physically difficult? Whatever, it’s an oft-levelled criticism.

The World’s “great communicators” (the Yanks) are always banging on about how good they are at communicating, and how bad we are.

It’s particularly important to communicate during some sort of crisis, like the one BP is going through right now. It’s interesting to watch BP CEO Tony Hayward dealing with intense press and political scrutiny, and to learn from his actions and mistakes.

His early gaffe - “I want my life back” - caused widespread offence, and he clearly learned from this when facing the senate hearings and resolutely refusing to say anything that wasn’t written down on his notes.

He’s making efforts to engage with people a bit more - looking at them while he’s saying something for example, which wasn’t a feature of his early efforts - but essentially his efforts to deal with the crisis revolve around the phrase “we’re investigating this fully, and I’ll tell you what we think after that”.

See, that’s not working. He should take a lesson from how Harriett Hindmarsh, then Head of Press at Arup (now at Shephard Robson), dealt with the rather less environmentally damaging crisis around Lord Foster’s millennium bridge. You’ll remember how it wobbled when people went onto it for the first time? It was, actually, a national disgrace (according to The Sun anyway), and cast a big shadow on the reputations of all those involved.

Arup, in contrast to others involved in the project, stepped up to the plate, and rather than a terse “we’re looking at it, we’ll get back to you whenever”, they engaged actively with the press, first acknowledging and apologising for the problem, and then, in rapid order, explaining what they were doing about it, and how it could be solved.

Well before they had worked out it was people walking in step causing a resonance in the bridge structure, they were talking about their top engineers and how much time they were spending on working the problem out.

They gave daily updates, while the subject was in the public eye, and actively engaged with the journalists and broadcasters covering the story. This openness, and (to an extent) over communication made them ‘the good guys’, particularly when they were able to claim the glory for the solution.

Their ability to communicate their immense efforts, that they put their ‘top brains’ onto the problem, and that they made the country feel they ‘owned’ the problem in the end enhanced their reputation, after a wobbly moment (sorry) when it could have been irreparably damaged.

Mr Hayward is presumably terrified by the prospect of criminal charges, who wouldn’t be? But his communication efforts are making him public enemy no.1 in America. BP needs to tell the American People how the problem happened, what they’re doing about it, and how they are in charge and on top, rather than deferring until they have read the results of their own internal investigation which is yet to complete two months after the initial explosion.

BP could well disappear as a result of this, but, as with Arup and the bridge, it is not the fact of the accident that will be the cause. Their future will be determined by how their response has been, and continues to be perceived by the general public, and how that affects the sentiment of the sharedealers in the World’s stock exchanges.

Ross Sturley is the Principal at Chart Lane (www.chartlane.co.uk), a strategic communications company, and a committee member for CIMCIG (the Chartered Institute of Marketing Construction Industry Group - www.cimcig.org). CIMCIG is launching a report next week about how more sustainable technologies can be encouraged in the built environment, rather than legislated for (see here for details of the launch).