Some truths about Tony Hayward, and other CEOs in crisis

Thus far, I’ve left BP and its beleaguered CEO Tony Hayward alone. I’m sure I’ve made them uneasy with my silence.

But the beauty of being quiet is that it gives you time to think. Watching the CEO aspects of this crisis, I find myself asking like lots of my communication-minded brethren, “When will these guys ever learn?”

And then I find myself upbraiding myself for the multilevel simple-mindedness of my own question.

First, “these guys” will never pre-learn the lessons of crisis PR, because each generation of executive has to experience things like this for the first time. We don’t criticize kindergarteners for having to learn how to read, just because we had to learn it from scratch ourselves. Similarly, Tony Hayward didn’t go to all of Fraser Seitel’s seminars on crisis leadership. (Clearly.)

Second, the question is, “learn what,” exactly? It’s easy to find flaws in BP’s crisis response—indeed, at times, it has been hard to find anything else—but it ought to be acknowledged that a disaster this big will beget a communication crisis that isn’t tied up in a bow by Day Two.

Finally, framing this matter as a problem of crisis PR misses the larger point, which is that many CEOs are scarily out of touch, both with how their companies operate day to day, and with how the “small people” live. Such truths come out in a crisis—”I want my life back”—but they are part of the cause of crises in the first place.

In sort, this isn’t a crisis-PR problem, nor even a Tony Hayward problem. It’s a CEO problem, a social problem, an economic problem, an environmental problem, a who’s-in-charge-(no-who’s-really-in-charge)-problem.

And if we blame Tony Hayward for it, we condemn ourselves to continue to live and die by the mistakes and lucky blunders of similarly blind social drunkards.

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