Graham McMillan, Open Road: Comms in the right context

Despite globalisation, the principles of good comms are universal - even if local markets differ.

Does globalisation make communication more global? Or is it that news, information and comment are now global and instantaneous but the principles of good comms are universal and the context is always local?

BP's recent travails serve as a salutary reminder of the very different characteristics of different markets.

The US is a particularly difficult market for communicators. The sheer size, the geographic diversity, the number of time zones, the absence of 'national' print media (few people actually read The New York Times), and the confrontational and partisan nature of much of the media coverage all present uncomfortable challenges when a crisis hits.

Then there is the desire and the need on the part of the US media - particularly cable TV - to find a culprit, demonise them and subsequently try to blame them for as much as they possibly can. The US has had many friends who have gone on to become public enemy number one.

For more than 100 days, the same images of BP's spewing gusher played constantly on CNN, social media spread the images, high profile broadcasters relocated their studios to the Gulf of Mexico and well-known local politicians, Congressmen, scientists and pundits jumped into the spin-fest offering insights (or bromides) on BP's behaviour.

Unless you are personally involved, it is of course impossible to know exactly how you would respond in a crisis of this magnitude.

But BP stumbled. It was not sure whether to engage or withdraw. With hindsight it should have been much more frank in the early days. Then there were some of the famous Hayward gaffes that unfortunately played to many prejudices about big oil and corporate malevolence.

If nothing else, the oil giant will have learned not to understate the potential scale of a crisis at the beginning. If you are wrong and it turns out to be a far bigger crisis than you expected, then the impact on your reputation can be enormous.

The road back to trustworthiness for BP is a long one in the US. The end is nowhere in sight.

But ultimately, no amount of clever public relations was going to change the fundamental problem. BP's well was gushing five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the worst environmental disaster ever seen in the US. The disaster was not just environmental, but economic for the thousands of fishing and tourism businesses in the gulf.

The underlying problem for BP - just as it was for it with the Texas City oil refinery explosion - was one of health and safety.

The broader question is whether communicators are sitting around the table when investment in health and safety and environmental protection are being discussed. Are communicators there and are they arguing for long-term, ample investment in those areas? If they are not, then all they can do in the end is try to pick up the pieces after it is too late and the company's reputation has been shattered.

Long-term investment in health, safety and environmental protection is arguably a better guarantor of good corporate reputation than any amount of PR, marketing and advertising. That is worth remembering when there are others arguing to cut costs or lobbying for programmes that will reduce safety or weaken environmental regulations.

Information, news, comment and social media are global and instantaneous. But the principles are universal and the context is always local.

Views in brief

- Which organisation has most improved its reputation in the past year?

The banks' reputations have got much better. Lloyds in particular had massive problems but is now in a position where the Government can look forward to a good windfall from privatisation.

- To what extent do dwindling public sector budgets offer an opportunity for corporate CSR programmes to fill the void?

A great deal. Many public servants will be made redundant over the next four years. All non-essential government comms campaigns have been cancelled. Only the private sector, along with the voluntary sector, can fill this gap.

Graham McMillan is chief executive of Open Road

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