Robert Dudley has a once-in-a-career chance to be a hero.
As the new CEO of BP, Dudley must take the reins of what to date has been not only an ecological and economic disaster, but a near-complete collapse in reputation, goodwill and basic belief in the competence of its people. As devastating as this crisis must be to his company’s shareholders, the effect on BP employees must be every bit as demoralizing.
Yet all of this can and must be fixed as quickly as possible. Dudley’s appointment represents a fresh start, and the fact that he is an American probably helps. But this sort of superficial fact will mean little in the long run. To bring BP back to its pre-spill standing with investors, shareholders, regulators and customers, Dudley needs to act boldly and decisively. And the place to start is with his own people.
If I were sitting across from him today, here’s how I would advise Dudley on using leadership communications to restore BP’s reputation:
1) Form new teams in charge of: capping the well permanently; coordinating cleanup activities and liaison interaction with Gulf residents and businesses; and daily updates to employees.
2) Hold a global teleconference for all employees and franchise operators involving every BP location around the world. Devote 10 minutes to a detailed explanation of what happened, introduction of the new teams being deployed, and most important, his personal pledge to devote regular attention, all needed resources and a visible on-the-ground presence in the Gulf. The remainder of the teleconference would be turned over to an open Q&A, accepting unfiltered questions from any employee or franchisee.
3) This internal teleconference would be followed immediately—and I mean the same day, right afterward—by an open news conference to make the same announcements and field questions from the global media. No hedging or evading the tough questions. His personal credibility and that of the company—perhaps forever—depend on complete openness and integrity at this event.
4) Request the opportunity to make a major address at a key venue—the United Nations, perhaps, or before Congress again—where the entire story could be told, from the cause of the spill to the lessons learned. But more than offering a mea culpa to the nation and the world, Dudley could also use this as a platform to chart a new vision for BP—one that actively seeks to become the world’s leading source of research, development and implementation for the full spectrum of energy options needed for the 21st century and beyond. Talk about a turnaround. To go from ecological villain to hero over the next decade would echo John Kennedy’s challenge in 1961 to land a man on the moon within 10 years. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been championing this idea for some time, and if Dudley seized this moment to claim the challenge as BP’s own, it could become a sustained rallying cry—and a positive one—for his company.
5) Righting the BP ship in the short term is only the beginning of the leadership communications opportunity before Dudley, however. This needs to be a sustained effort, replete with regular and consistently credible updates to employees, shareholders, regulators and customers.
6) He should insist on bringing the highest-ranking retired U.S. Coast Guard officers and the president of at least one credible and responsible environmental organization onto the BP board of directors—and leverage those appointments into positive communications opportunities.
7) Officials from appropriate federal agencies, Congressional committees and the White House should be hosted at BP recovery and production facilities on a recurring schedule, with joint news conferences and announcements immediately following each visit.
Mr. Dudley, this is the moment. The ideas presented here only begin to scratch the surface of what should be done to bring your company back to prominence. And if you’re up for it, I’m happy to help.