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Tony Hayward – Lessons From Deepwater Horizon

June 15, 2011

We’ve all had bad days. Famously, even Richard Branson says he has days when he’s bored or feels he has not achieved things. The report is late, the boss is on the phone, the presentation fell flat. But there are not many people in the world who have had to endure the pressure that Tony Hayward, the ex-CEO of BP during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, had to deal with for most of 2010. If you get a call saying you need to meet with President Obama, leader of the free world, to discuss what your company is doing to overcome a massive oil leak – that’s a pretty tough day. If you have to agree to sell 10% of the business assets to help fund a $20 Billion relief fund that will be under massive media scrutiny – that’s huge pressure. And underlying all this, as Hayward was quick to point out, there is an environmental disaster and the tragic loss of 11 lives.

Last night I was lucky enough to hear Tony Hayward speak at a hot and humming Adam Street Club. Clearly, having had to deal with Congressional hearings, aggressive media interviews, environmentalist protests and tough meetings with everyone from Prime Ministers to Russian oil barons, talking to a room full of business people who wanted to hear his side of the story was an easier affair. Hayward’s career saw him rise from a young geologist working on a Scottish oil-rig to leading the third largest energy business in the world, a $200 billion hi-tech giant, employing over 95,000 people across 80 countries – that invests over $1 Billion in renewable energy R&D every year alone. As Hayward pointed out, he was used to dealing with Presidents and Prime Ministers and famously he had to negotiate Russian oil and gas rights with ex security chief – Igor Sechin too. His advice for negotiating with very tough Russians? Get a hard hat. The Deepwater Horizon disaster made Hayward public enemy number one across the USA and much of the world and it was he who had to front up to the media. He pointed out that if he had studied history, rather than geology, he might have realised that Kings always sent champions into battle, rather than suffer the blows themselves. In 2010 it was Hayward who had to go into battle and ultimately he had to suffer the blows and leave BP, a business he had joined in 1982. Hayward acknowledges that the disaster was huge and that the response required needed to be massive. But as he sees it, politicians and media formed a comfortable pact to ignore the complexity of the science, engineering and chemistry. It was a lot easier to lampoon and blame than to solve – and it was a ‘good story’ for election year too.  Being in the eye of the storm of one of the biggest corporate PR disasters ever Hayward had some interesting insights. With modern social media and all the best PR intentions in the world, even a corporation the size of BP cannot shape or control the media agenda. For example, I never knew that the fleet of ships brought together to clean up the spill was bigger than that assembled for D-Day in 1944. When anyone can blog and tweet erroneous or misleading facts 24-7 – to shape their own needs, a calm rational debate is hard to find. He advises all businesses to have rigorous disaster plans and revisit the risk they have to manage. Clearly, an industrial empire like BP had all this in place prior to Deepwater but even it was damaged severely, not just by the direct event, but the ripples that affected its share price, brand and confidence. In addition, BP utilised its connections, especially within the UK Government – and smartly,  Hayward and BP  relied upon the influence of the newly elected coalition to help communicate with the US Government. For someone who had to go through such a harsh year in 2010, Hayward is surprisingly calm and was in good spirits as he took questions from the floor. He has recently been in the press again – but this time for launching his own global oil and gas business – Valleres.  Perhaps, after Deepwater Horizon, he may have thought it was time to look at an industry or business that would be less risky. Opening a nice wee pub. Maybe a hard hat business. But clearly there is something else an underlying aspect of his story – he loves his work, the challenge, the engineering and the industry. He is a firstly a  geologist, an oil executive – and not a PR man. But after what he went through in 2010, if you had an international disaster on your hands, he’d be the ideal PR adviser to know. Thanks to Adam Street for a great event. For more on marketing partnerships and collaboration, please visit www.benchstone.co.uk.

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