On Friday we reviewed the ways BP tried/failed to control the messaging about the explosion and blowout of their/Transocean’s/Halliburton’s ‘Deepwater Horizon’ platform. Numerous pundits, as we noted, believed that BP was fighting a losing battle anyway, and should have coordinated a contingency PR strategy. Perhaps one that stated the facts without suggesting either optimism or hubris – and kept the figureheads out of the limelight whenever possible. In that posting, we compared BPs terrible gaffes with Apple’s efforts to get ahead of ‘Antennagate,’ a reference to reception/antenna problems on their latest iPhone 4. Over the weekend, we found a bit more material that bears thinking about concerning these two ongoing public-relations struggles. We stress again: the two issues are entirely different (BP still should be held accountable for the deaths of eleven workers – iPhone users are occasionally dropping calls when inadvertently using the so-called ‘ ‘ of the antenna), but watching two superpowers in their industries wrangle with their public images is informative for the mission-based organization also wanting to present a forthright and optimistic message to the public.
Reports from the US Coast Guard over the weekend found evidence of oil and/or methane seeping from the ocean floor around the recently seated cap. This evidence, along with BP’s admission that pressure within the cap was lower than expected, raised fears that the damaged well has sprung other leaks under the ocean floor. As of today,, but is pressing BP for contingency plans if, indeed, other leaks have been created. We think it is fair to say that in recent days BP have dealt with such events in a much more sanguine manner than they did during the first 6-weeks of the crisis. The corporation has let Admiral Paul Zukunft of the Coast Guard do much of the speaking over this weekend, and want to suggest BP is following sound Coast Guard leadership:
BP continues to work cooperatively with the guidance and approval of the National Incident Commander and the leadership and direction of federal government including the Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Federal Science Team, Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement, U.S. Coast Guard and secretaries Ken Salazar and Steven Chu. At this time, the well integrity test on the MC252 exploratory well continues.
Contrast the sense of teamwork and oversight with the press release of 19 July (above) with the one from 24 May (picked somewhat randomly; All the press releases from BP pertinent to the spill can be found at www.bp.com):
Plans continue to develop a so-called “top kill” operation where heavy drilling fluids are injected into the well to stem the flow of oil and gas and ultimately kill the well. Successfully killing the well may be followed by cement to seal the well. Most of the equipment is on site and preparations continue for this operation, with a view to deployment in a few days.
This is a complex operation requiring sophisticated diagnostic work and precise execution. As a result, it involves significant uncertainties and it is not possible to assure its success or to put a definite timescale on its deployment.
BP have clearly learned that using the media to announce to the world what BP is going to do can be counterproductive (no ‘top kill’ operation was completed, thus cementing the seal/cap was a non-starter).
On the other hand, Apple’s unprecedented press release to deal with the issue termed ‘Antennagate’ (the possibility that the iPhone 4 will drop your call if you grip the seam of the antenna that is wrapped around the chassis of the phone) was held Friday afternoon, and Steve Jobs seemed to be following the Tony Hayward playbook of stating his company will fix a problem that doesn’t really exist. Apple, not unlike BP, began with its own bit of hubris spoken ex cathedra about three weeks ago that was not well taken by its millions of supporters.
At first glance, Friday’s press conference seemed more of the same: the problem affects all smart phones, the iPhone drops less than 1 per 100 calls, that only 1.7% of the latest iPhones have been returned (at about a million units sold a week, that’s a pretty good batting average!), etc. Jim Frommer of BusinessInsider.com even noted in his live feed at the conference that Jobs spoke for some 30 minutes before suggesting Apple was even going to try to do anything about it.
But as Jobs turned to what Apple would do about it, he turned the story back both to the customers (whose satisfaction and awe he said he hopes to win every day) and to the press (who ran wild with the story as if only the iPhone had the issue and as if tens of thousands of people were demanding refunds on their iPhones). So, unlike Tony Hayward, Jobs dealt with the concern directly, even as he pointed out the larger technical context that made the concern both unavoidable and able to be mitigated. Both companies have suffered hits to their stock, but Apple’s has already inched back up whereas BP’s continues to slip, even post-cap.
A really good survey of how other smartphone companies have responded to Apple’s ‘Antennagate’ and response can be found at Faruk Ates’s blog, to which we have occasionally directed our readers. What Apple enjoys that BP does not is a sense of trust and interaction between the corporation and its customers. Thus, when such a rare PR debacle comes Apple’s way, its audience wants to believe its message/response. Such trust takes time to build, and it requires businesses (and nonprofits) to talk and to listen. To choose which battles are worth a fight and which might not be. To be prepared to challenge the prevailing wisdom, but to do so with a willingness (if necessary) to change tack. Social media can offer the opportunity to build goodwill, in part because the communication ‘pressure’ can be quite low (state what is relevant, though it need not be game-changing) and your community can weigh in or peruse or simply appreciate the notice – all offering a bit more likability to your organization.