BP's New Strategy Includes Humility

In announcing a new CEO, BP also appears to have unveiled a new strategy for talking to the world about the company and its response to the oil spill. It includes a strong dose of modesty that few people saw in Tony Hayward.

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This past week, BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, was shown the door, and the company's board of directors picked an American, Bob Dudley, to replace him. That was widely reported.

But what we didn't hear much about was something NPR reporter Jeff Brady noticed. The company also appears to have adopted a new communication strategy.

JEFF BRADY: If you heard one of the many interviews with Bob Dudley in recent days, you heard BP's new message. Here he was on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Mr. BOB DUDLEY (Future CEO, BP America, Inc.): We're going to learn a lot from this incident and this accident. It's a terrible, tragic accident. We're going to learn a lot. The industry is going to learn a lot. And there's no question that we will change as a company from those learnings. We're going to emerge from it wiser. I think we're going to emerge from it stronger. We're certainly going to continue to meet our commitments in the Gulf.

BRADY: There's a level of humility in that statement that just wasn't present when the man Dudley is replacing talked. Remember Tony Hayward's infamous comment about wanting his life back?

Hayward was trained as an geologist and while he was good at improving BP's balance sheet, he wasn't good at communicating a basic understanding of human nature and emotions.

Professor NANCY KOEHN (Historian, Harvard Business School): As a professor, I would give him a failing grade on all those counts.

BRADY: Nancy Koehn is an historian at Harvard Business School. She says it's no longer good enough for a leader to excel at one thing, even if it's improving profits. She says this is a time when environmental or political turbulence can quickly lead to financial disaster.

Koehn says today, a successful leader of a complex organization has a good understanding of his or her own emotions, and what effect that has on other people's emotions.

Prof. KOEHN: And uses that emotional awareness as a tool to, you know, to stay cool when others are heating up, to instill energy when people around him need productive and credible energy.

BRADY: Whether Dudley has these people skills remains to be seen. His first challenge came Friday, when he announced BP would begin scaling back its clean-up effort, since less oil appears to be washing onshore now. He was quick to mention that this did not mean the company was any less committed to making things right.

The timing of this past week's announcement is important, according to Dartmouth management professor Sidney Finkelstein. It came about a week and a half after a temporary cap was put in place, stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Professor SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN (Management, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College): The fact that they're taking this time now to remove Tony Hayward suggests to me that within BP they have a tremendous amount of confidence that the well will stay capped, 'cause you don't want more bad news coming out after this - because that bad news will then fall on his successor.

BRADY: Of course, there's still the issue of whether the relief well that's close to being finished will succeed in capping the well permanently. And there's another unknown out there: whether all this careful timing and message crafting will have an effect on the public.

At a farmer's market in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, Latifia Carter says she likes the fact that Dudley, the new CEO, spent part of his youth in Mississippi.

Ms. LATIFIA CARTER: Hopefully, someone with some local ties will be able to understand the plight of the people in the Gulf South.

BRADY: But in this crowd, there's still a lot of skepticism about BP and its intentions - evidence that repairing the company's image won't be easy.

New Orleans resident Gary Brooks thinks it would help if Dudley were completely transparent with the public.

Mr. GARY BROOKS: I think he needs to say, look, we took shortcuts. We put profits above safety. We're sorry. We're going to make it right. And we are going to change the whole culture of BP.

BRADY: The company has never admitted taking shortcuts or putting profit ahead of safety. And considering legal liability issues, that seems unlikely to change. Which leads us to another lesson: There is a difference between communication and a communication strategy.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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