When corporate accidents happen, people look to the CEO for answers. And in the case of the recent oil spill caused by British Petroleum (BP), the company has covered all the right public relations bases. Tony Hayward, BP’s Chief Executive, has been actively interviewing with dozens of media outlets and the company’s website posts frequent updates on the spill and containment efforts. And, his employees are working hard to rectify the problem. But is this enough?
Back in September 1982, seven people died in the Chicago area after taking
cyanide-laced capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol, the painkiller that
was Johnson & Johnson’s best-selling product. James Burke, the company’s chairman, exhibited unusual honesty and sensitivity by recalling 31 million bottles of Tylenol and
offering replacements free of charge.
But more than 20 years have passed since that accident and in today’s business environment, forthrightness isn’t enough. The US Geological Survey estimates that 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil are being leaked into the Gulf each day, and that the spill has affected the coasts of 4 U.S. states. Some Florida residents have reported that BP’s efforts are largely limited to the leak itself, and that BP has little or no presence on the hundreds of beaches on which globules of tar- and oil-soaked wildlife is washing up.
To make matters worse, Hayward told the BBC that BP would, “return the Gulf Coast to the position it was in prior to the event.” In this one statement, Hayward’s lack of leadership can be viewed most clearly. Even after the leaking well is contained and most of the oil is removed, the Gulf Coast will never be the same. [After all, this spill is estimated to be at least 10x larger than the one caused by the Exxon Valdez in the eighties, whose effects are still being seen.]
Leaders don’t manage a crisis; they enable a company to be transformed by it. When James Burke took the extraordinary step of recalling and replacing Tylenol, he taught an entire industry to put consumers first. Tony Hayward’s actions may be effective at stemming public curiosity, but he isn’t making choices that will change an entire industry’s approach to handling an environmental disaster.