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Erika James
Scholar

Erika James

Erika James is the Bank of America Associate Research Professor of Business Administration at UVA's Darden School and co-author of the 2010 book, Leading Under Pressure.

Reality TV no replacement for compassion

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 has made numerous missteps in the five weeks since the initial explosion that resulted in the massive oil spill. Transparency, or, more accurately, the perception of inadequate transparency, is one of those missteps. Early on executives from BP and Transocean bungled responses to reporters and others regarding the cause and severity of the explosion and subsequent spill, leaving the public to speculate on both accounts.

In the absence of meaningful communication from the sources that are privy to what is happening, speculation inevitably led to inaccuracies and exacerbated the blaming game. Lack of transparency also leads to the assumption that the companies are not doing enough, or enough of the right things, to stop the flow of oil. So their communication and strategy up to this point has been fairly dismal.

Generally speaking transparency during a crisis is a good thing -- regardless of how ugly the truth is. I do not know what motivated the decision to put the 'spillcam' on live feed. Perhaps it was an attempt to change course and become more transparent; or perhaps there were other motivations. Without knowing what prompted this decision I think it may be a stretch to say that the on-going live 'spillcam' feed is actually a strategy. Rather it comes across as merely a tactic to try to reclaim some of BP's reputation by allowing the public to see the top kill maneuver. Doing so merely gives the illusion that they are being more transparent.

Transparency comes in two forms. There is transparency in the tactical response to the crisis, and there is transparency in the emotional response to the crisis. The 'spillcam' is a tactical crisis response. Yet, the Gulf coast region is facing a tremendous devastation. I'm confident that the men and women employed by BP recognize the pain and suffering of the residents in and around the region. Unfortunately, the lack of emotional transparency, in this case communicating a sense of compassion, has compounded their problems and further aggravated stakeholders.

Finally, one can question whether the 'spillcam' is in fact a mechanism for transparency at all. The live footage does not really provide any more information than what we know already -- there is a huge, ongoing oil spill. The increasing amount of oil floating atop the shore's surface is now visible to the naked eye. We don't need the 'spillcam' to tell us that the oil well has not been plugged. Moreover, when it is eventually plugged I can assure you that BP will communicate the news. So watching the live-feed speaks more to our voyeuristic tendency than it does our inclination to be rational. And what perfect timing. Now that the reality shows have had their season finales, we can turn on 'spillcam' t.v. and tune into "Top Kill." Sounds like a compelling show to me.

For BPs sake, I hope that they seek other, more meaningful ways to be transparent, both tactically and emotionally. The lack of transparency, or creating only an illusion of transparency, not only makes them less credible, but undermines whatever confidence the public may have initially had in BP's ability to effectively resolve this issue.

By Erika James

 |  May 28, 2010; 3:40 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 greatest show of compassion by BP is to do the best that they can by stopping the 'breach'. The greatest show of compassion by the feds is to concentrate resources on cleaning up the current mess and work with the petroleum industry to find ways to avoid this in the future, also get out of the way of the people with the more knowledge, expertise and equipment than we have to stop the 'breach'. Further, why haven't we heard more of the 'newly discovered' breach in the ocean floor of the Gulf that is spewing more oil than the crisis du jour? It's 10+ miles long and 3+ miles wide - bearmarketnews.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/giant-oil-plumes-found-in-gulf-depths/ Of course, all the enviro-nazis are trying to connect it to the rig blow-out.

Posted by: BeanerECMO | May 31, 2010 1:52 AM
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What is needed is neither "tactical" transparency nor "emotional" transparency, but rather ethical and legally mandated coverage, neither of which we have.

The problem does not rest with BP alone, just as the problems with nonreporting coverage during the Gulf War or throwing in the towel during the hurricaine that devastated Texans rested with the US military and government.

If there is blame to be assigned, it must be assigned to the media as much as to BP.
And the media has options, just as it always has. During the Gulf War, when Peter Jennings and all the star anchor boys, the Times, WaPo, etc., were trumpeting the glories of "precision bombing" (LOL for the intelligent), CNN, alone, reported that Bagdad looked like "the center of hell." POINT: The truth CAN out. We had, at one point, a fourth estate. Kathrine Graham, rest in peace.

ON the GULF: The Times reported (erroneously) that three hundred workers had been brought to the gulf, coincidentally, in time for the president's visit.

Compare CNN: FIVE HUNDRED clean-up workers had been brought in for the president's visit, given clothes to change into upon arrival, sent back to the agency after the president's departure. At no time, reported CNN, citing several credible sources, had there been more than twenty workers on the shore.

In the meantime, area residents, who are not on the front page of WaPo, The Times, or anywhere, none of the thousands, are reporting difficulties breathing, nausea, vomiting, and headaches.

TRANSPARENCY? Why, Erika James, that is the task of your media colleagues.

Posted by: farnaz_mansouri2 | May 30, 2010 11:06 PM
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The writer "do[es] not know what motivated the decision to put the 'spillcam' on live feed", so she is unaware that BP started providing the live feed after strong pressure from congressional representatives at hearings on May 19th. I'm not a professor of business administration; I just know this as a result of reading the Washington Post. (It was on the front page of the Post, after all.)

Posted by: yrral | May 30, 2010 7:15 PM
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I tend to think the failure of MMS regulators to keep track of the oil rigs was a big factor in this disaster.

Posted by: economy48 | May 30, 2010 6:30 PM
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//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...For BPs sake, I hope that they seek other, more meaningful ways to be transparent, both tactically and emotionally... //

Spillcam coverage provided by BP is a sham coverup, if nothing else, of the heinous decision making process, behind the scenes.

First of all, if BP and its partners are serious about the transparency business, they would allow people to watch their boardroom meetings, where actual decisions are being made.

It will surprise people to know that even as millions of litres of oil is being spilled into Gulf of Mexico, BP's boardroom directors are negotiating mundane things like 1) who gets to own the oil once this spill is stopped, 2) Whether US Feds can bring charges against BP 3) If Feds do bring charges against BP, what kind of charges can be brought.

BP or its partners will keep delaying this Oil Spill containment/stoppage until they can get Feds/Gulf States to agree to their terms. If this teeney weeney bit of iformation sharing surprises people, so be it.

Secondly, if transparency is people business, Feds have to restructure The Minerals Management Service, and in future allow people to have more say, through voting process, on who gets the offshore/onshore drilling contracts. That way eeven if the accidents happen, people will know it is them who made that decision to allow such blood succking organizations to drill.

Thirdly, people need to know some basic facts - that George W. Bush, even though an oil man, does not know a thing about the drilling business. His (and people like him such as Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin etc) role primarily is to formulate an opnion about oil drilling, wars and wrap those opinions in a pacakage (emotional and what not) and sell it to people.

Fourth, Democrats and Republicans alike, including the likes of Bill Gates are intellectually bankrupt, who know nothing about the engineering and technological issues of a business. These leaders are only proficient at monetary aspect of the business and even at that, have no knowledge beyond "How a trade is made?" -

So it is in best interest of people of United States to take upon themselves to educate themselves to the facts of doing business, especially engineering businesses, rather than follow corrupt leaders (as sheep in a herd) to be led off the cliff to their own death, in present case a catastrophe of Oil Spill in Gulf of Mexico.

It's the end of the month of May, so we know for sure "Sell in May and go away" did work. L uuuuuuuuuuuuuuu...

Posted by: Al-Majnoon | May 30, 2010 2:45 PM
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This is a writer in search of an issue, rather than an issue in search of a writer. I read the article twice and I still can't figure what the hell she's complaining about. I mean in substance. She throws a lot of "transparency" verbage throughout every paragraph, but when you get down to substantive complaints, all I could find were (1) "Early on executives from BP and Transocean bungled responses to reporters and others regarding the cause and severity of the explosion and subsequent spill, leaving the public to speculate on both accounts" and (2) "one can question whether the 'spillcam' is in fact a mechanism for transparency at all." With regard to the first, anyone who has been involved in a crisis (as opposed to sitting behind a computer writing about them) understands that facts are muddled in the beginning. Things become clearer as events settle down and people have time to look into them. With regard to the second, well, some want to see the cam and maybe some don't. From what I can see, BP is working like hell to stop this leak, if for no other reason than it is in their best interests to do so. Erika, Honey, there are plenty of other stories on this issue that can be written without you manufacturing one. I seriously wondered as I was writing this that if BP hired you to fix their "tranparency" problems, just what in the hell would you tell them to do? I sure couldn't figure it out from your story (unless your answer to them would be: "become more transparent"). It's great insight like that, I'm sure, that's landed you among a lot of other airheads and bottom feeders at the Washington Post.

Posted by: bryan3 | May 30, 2010 12:17 PM
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What people don't seem to understand about major corporations is, they all have a single focus. That focus is profits and shareholder confidence. They will do almost anything to ensure their competitive edge, security profits for shareholders, and maintain market share. The capitalist system that fosters these values is inherently unethical when it come to mitigating any resulting injuries, deaths and environmental disasters. They see these issues as the cost of doing business. This disaster in the gulf ranks right up there with the Exxon Valdez, the Bopal disaster in India, the Tobacco lawsuits, the Ford Motor Company mechanical lawsuits, the Toyota acceleration issues, the mining disasters in WV, and Utah, and numerous other disasters around the world involving major corporations.

Posted by: demtse | May 30, 2010 7:03 AM
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What people don't seem to understand about major corporations is, they all have a single focus. That focus is profits and shareholder confidence. They will do almost anything to ensure their competitive edge, security profits for shareholders, and maintain market share. The capitalist system that fosters these values is inherently unethical when it come to mitigating any resulting injuries, deaths and environmental disasters. They see these issues as the cost of doing business. This disaster in the gulf ranks right up there with the Exxon Valdez, the Bopal disaster in India, the Tobacco lawsuits, the Ford Motor Company mechanical lawsuits, the Toyota acceleration issues, the mining disasters in WV, and Utah, and numerous other disasters around the world involving major corporations.

Posted by: demtse | May 30, 2010 7:02 AM
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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 4:38 PM
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