City & Corporate: BP puts lawyers in their rightful place

The decision by BP to admit publicly to deeply disturbing internal mistakes, which led to the Texas oil refinery explosion that killed 15 people earlier this year, marks a famous victory for PR over lawyers.

It is a hallmark of corporate disasters for lawyers to advise a company to admit and say nothing. While this may be understandable from a lawyer's perspective, it is frequently disastrous in PR terms. The public and the media expect explanations and some sign of common humanity. Silence from a company gives free rein to critics and compounds, often significantly, reputational damage and badly demoralises staff.

American firms seem particularly thick-skinned about this, perhaps because they are more used to litigation. It is, however, a frequent source of frustration with British executives of US-led firms to be told by a remote US office that they must respect a gag imposed without any understanding of the different social, legal and business cultures on this side of the Atlantic.

It would be fascinating to have an insight into the debate behind BP's decision. BP may have decided to make its admission purely on moral grounds, or it may have been hard-headed enough to know that while it could fight accusations through the courts, the odds were that it would be found liable in the end. Either way, the decision to own up means closure for BP and moves things forward.

The interesting thing is whether this strategy will become the norm - whether, in the media-dominated world, global companies have come to realise that reputational risk outweighs almost all other considerations.

Could it be the case that PR advisers will finally put the lawyers back in the box from which they should never have been allowed to escape?

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