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Katherine Tyler Scott
Business leader

Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

Bleeding to death on camera

Q: In a crisis, organizations are advised to be as open and transparent as possible. In that spirit BP has vowed to continue its live 'spillcam' coverage this week as engineers attempt to plug the oil well with the risky 'top kill' maneuver. Has that been the right strategy?

BP is misguided in its interpretation of what it means to be open and transparent. Hosting a continual public vigil via its 'spillcam' and the media coverage is creating even more angst. It is like watching someone bleed to death and being powerless to do anything to stop it.

In a disaster, those affected want to be reassured that someone understands the problem and has the capacity to eventually solve it. BP has demonstrated neither. Its obvious cultural insularity and demonstrated inability to imagine the worst, has rendered it ineffective in managing this crisis.

Viewing oil, mud, and sand gush into what was once life-giving water is painful to watch, and it has been made even more so by the mishandling and misinformation from BP. The growing awareness that BP had no thoughtful planned "bank of options" from which to draw upon is outrageous.

The devastation to businesses and shorelines, to people and a way of life, is incalculable. An even worse loss is that of public trust. What is also troubling about this disaster is its occurrence at a time when the public is already filled with fear and cynicism, distrust of institutions, and skepticism about the ability to lead. In this era of diffuse and generalized anxiety, the tendency to misdirect anger and engage in blaming and scapegoating is dangerously high.

BP has made itself the perfect target for a public already prone to fear and intolerant of problems lasting more than a week. The challenge they face is how to manage the growing frustration and anger constructively. The responses should lead to greater civic health, not more toxicity.

BP's problem is that it did not tell the truth to itself. It may not have much practice. The strategy of dumping information on the public without thinking of the result and without giving accurate, specific data about what it means now, and in the long term, is irresponsible.

Some lessons I hope BP will learn from this disaster are:

1. Organizational trust is your greatest asset. It is developed from a culture of openness, honesty, and integrity. Protecting your brand should not be the first response. So, tell the truth, tell the truth.

2. Your core values should supersede concerns about profit; return to them and monitor whether they are being lived out internally.

3. Position your organization to respond to crisis before crisis occurs. Events will happen that are beyond your control. Anticipate what you can, but know that you can't know everything that will happen. Therefore, equip your leaders with adaptive skills so they can navigate through difficult times leaving the company's integrity and good reputation intact.

4. When you do something wrong or something goes wrong, acknowledge it and assume responsibility to do everything you can to fix the problem. It's a blow to the public persona of any company when its short comings are expressed for all to see. But an honest assessment of the problems leads to responsible responses.

5. Use the media to inform and educate the public, not to sensationalize the crisis or saturate it with data that is not understood by the average person. Your job is to create understanding, not confusion, and to manage expectations. When you leave a vacuum of understanding, the media fills it and it isn't always helpful.

6. The more successful your company is, the more intentional you need to be to guard against cultural insularity and arrogance. Bad things can, and do, happen to good companies. What matters now is your impact, not your intent.

By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  May 28, 2010; 3:48 PM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The video showing the outpouring of oil from the source has allowed professionals to provide much more realistic estimates of the spill volume than BP felt obligated to provide. This single action was one of the first steps in blowing apart the matrix of lies that BP has sown about the spill from day one. These estimates have since been supported by independent research revealing huge subsurface plumes that can only be accounted for by outflows much larger than provided by BP. It has nothing to do with BP "strategy". They were forced to do this, if not earlier, then surely later. They have branded themselves as liars and, quite possibly, criminals. It will be interesting to see how it all settles out.

Posted by: Catch1 | June 1, 2010 3:29 PM
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I predict Ki ThoughtBridge will be harmed by this epic disaster of a column.

Honestly, I don't know if I've ever read anything so misguided. This really affected me.

To think that children and young adults might read your advice... shame on you.

Posted by: kackermann | May 31, 2010 10:11 AM
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Are you short-sighted, of just of low intelligence?

You think showing the truth might cause angst. Great! It should cause it, you fool!

Don't you get it? You can't run away from it. It's real.

What's next, will you reccomend that we take drugs to forget our problems?

If anyone with any authority reads this, please fire the author. There are much more deserving columnists.

Posted by: kackermann | May 31, 2010 10:04 AM
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If there were a Republican in office you would be reveling in this.
Posted by: get_it_right | May 28, 2010 8:19 PM
??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Obviously you haven't been paying attention. This President has been and continues to be vilified for this. What more do you want. Oh, never mind . I know there are a small group of Obama haters who want nothing more than the President to fail, be impeached, quit or anything else to over turn a fair and free election simply because they don't like the person the American people chose to run our country.

Posted by: catmomtx | May 28, 2010 9:26 PM
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All it does is give the Obama haters more ammunition to vilify him. It is amazing how so many people have ignored the company who is responsible just to vilify the President of the United States. How they won't hold BP responsible but somehow blame the President. Even the people in Louisiana are blaming the President rather than the people totally responsible. Why is that by the way? Are they afraid of offending the company they think are going to pay them off?

Then you have the arm chair CEO's who know absolutely nothing about this situation acting as if they are the absolute experts. Makes me wonder why there are so many unemployed out there considering all the experts who have been commenting and calling Obama and his administration stupid and inept. I wonder where all these experts have been over the past 10 years.Why don't they run for office since they seem to think they know more than the President. I mean they seem to know everything, how to fix every problem that arise, know automatically that President Obama isn't doing anything but twiddling his thumbs, hoping that he ruins America. Yeah, can't wait to see what these geniuses that vilify the President day in and day out contribute to our country besides running off of the mouth.

Posted by: catmomtx | May 28, 2010 9:21 PM
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Now that Obama is on the hook for this disaster, all of a sudden the mainstream media doesn't want to see the oil gusher. What a bunch of reeking hypocrites you are. If there were a Republican in office you would be reveling in this. However, even Obama's most ardent supporters are beginning to realize that the Emperor has no clothes. You own it now, Obama!!

Posted by: get_it_right | May 28, 2010 8:19 PM
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The camera was not a PR strategy, rather it was a capitulation to the demand by the people to be told what in "hell" was going on as no one believed a single word from BP, the Government, or the talking heads of cable rants! And the camera revealed in a way that could not be denied that the spill was much, much greater than was admitted, exposed the total hypocrisy of using the "dispersant" to hide the extent of the "spill", and made obvious every twist and swindle of BP and its government protectors.

Doing this for every action of government, military, and corporations might actually lead to a society that was now a machination of hidden power, backroom pay-offs, and basic dishonesty and greed!

Posted by: Chaotician | May 28, 2010 4:37 PM
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