First impressions will be vital for BP's new comms director

Starting a new job is tough. It's humbling at the start, but you just weather the learning curve and keep going. I am maneuvering through that process having just started as PRWeek's senior editor.

Starting a new job is tough. It's humbling at the start, but you just weather the learning curve and keep going. I am maneuvering through that process having just started as PRWeek's senior editor.

Keeping all things in perspective helps, so when I read that BP, lambasted for its communications during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, just named Peter Henshaw its communications director, I thought, "That man really has his work ahead of him."

Henshaw, most recently head of government affairs at British gas producer BG Group and a former long-time BP employee, will lead press and government relations at BP starting this month. Mishandled efforts in both those areas were the root cause of the company's PR nightmare following the disaster.

Instituting a crisis communications training program for all senior management is probably high on his to-do list. Insensitive remarks from former BP CEO Tony Hayward in effect threw gas on an already raging fire. It was also painfully apparent communications had broken down between BP and the government when, in mid-crisis, the latter stepped in to take sole control of communications.

In preparing this issue, which includes the feature "BP: A Year Later", it struck me that communications efforts since the incident remain a problem. During a contentious meeting in mid-January with Gulf residents frustrated about the delay in receiving claim money, Kenneth Feinberg, who manages BP's $20 billion compensation fund, was reported in local papers saying "We've paid out $1 billion in Louisiana alone. It might be the wrong people, but somebody's get- ting money." Bet that made people feel better about BP's intent to "make things right," a recurring tagline in its TV ads.

Another suggestion for Henshaw's to-do list: loop Feinberg in on some communications classes.

At the most basic level, BP's website should communicate the latest on clean-up efforts. But a visit in the second week in January offered a lot of dated material. Under the "BP Internal Investigation" button, a September 2010 release concluded that decisions made by "multiple companies and work teams" contributed to the accident. No sign of a recent release promoting clean-up initiatives.

As the one-year anniversary of the spill nears, BP will face a media rehash of its every misstep. But with a relatively new CEO and comms people, BP has the opportunity to reinvent its corporate mindset regarding internal communications and PR efforts and not have its legacy be forever defined by poor crisis management.

From that perspective, my job looks a whole lot easier.

Bernadette Casey is the senior editor of PRWeek. She can be contacted at bernadette.casey@prweek.com.

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