I recently wrote a marketing column in Trade Only about the need for marine businesses to have crisis communications strategies. I referenced the Tiger Woods debacle and compared it to David Letterman and discussed how a well-orchestrated, pre-emptive strike paid off for the king of late night, while Wood’s lingering failure to address his public and control the message at the outset quickly exacerbated his nightmare to epic crisis proportions.

In that same column, I shared a few case studies of how two different marine companies dealt with their own PR challenges. One was proactive and reached out to all of its various audiences, including dealers, customers, prospects and press. The other hid behind its legal eagles and refused to comment or address allegations, to its ultimate detriment. The company suffered resulting brand reputation damage, unhealthy media speculation, loss of dealer confidence, and a direct bullet to the bottom line.

Over the past 85 days I have been reminded of this column as the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold. Notwithstanding the horrendous environmental implications and massive loss of wildlife and jobs caused by this wretched disaster, I have watched in disbelief as global giant BP has transformed itself into an oily monster, not only because of the spill but also because of its appalling lack of sound public relations.

In short order, BP CEO Tony Hayward became America’s public enemy No. 1 with his multiple series of regrettably stupid and embarrassing PR gaffes that delivered prime time and front page fodder on a daily basis.

To wit:

“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” he allegedly said to his executive team, following the spill, reported by the New York Times April 29. I might ask the same question of him as it relates to our coast, our people and our livelihood.

And to The Guardian: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” In a later interview with reporters, he described the environmental impact to be “very, very modest,” when in fact it has since been described as one of the worst disasters in modern history.

When asked if he could sleep at night, his flippant response: “Of course I can.”

While others were trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, not to mention the tar balls that have changed the complexion and smell of our beaches, Hayward traipsed off to watch — of all things — a yacht race!

And who could forget the verbal bomb he dropped about the scores of “small people” impacted by the spill, including the tragic boat captain who took his own life?

Perhaps his most contemptible blunder was when he tried to make a public apology but in the same breath, added, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” What a thoughtless, insensitive jerk. No longer the objective media observer, I was fueled by anger and seethed at this highly offensive remark.

I’m thankful that a cap is finally in place, and I pray it will stop the flow of oil. However, BP’s bloody gush of its own bad press will live on in infamy. No doubt, this incident will serve as a major case study of what not to do in PR textbooks for years to come.

There is much we can and should learn from this public relations disaster.

1. Having a crisis communication plan in place is a necessary and prudent business protocol. You never know when some tragic incident can make your company front-page news. Are you prepared?

2. The CEO may be a great leader but may not be the best face or voice to represent the company in a crisis. The company should have a designated spokesperson, and that individual should be groomed and trained to deal with the media. This is a learned skill that embraces not only the spoken word but also intonation and non-verbal body language.

3. Be pre-emptive. Don’t be put on the defensive. Be the first to address the issue. Take responsibility. Tell what transpired, how the company is addressing the problem, and how you will prevent it from happening again. Be proactive. Embrace the role of problem-solver.

4. In crisis situations, it is important to be perceived as caring, concerned and especially sensitive to those whose lives are directly affected. It may be more important to listen than to defend, rationalize or attempt to diminish the scope or impact of the issue. Why was Hayward walking around the beach with his jacket on instead of rolling up his sleeves and working to cleanse wildlife drenched and dying in oil, or meeting with the families whose livelihoods — or lives — were lost?

5. Companies need to be accountable and accept responsibility. I appreciate the fine line between legally protecting assets and opening up your company to lawsuits. However, never forget that failure to openly acknowledge the issue often translates into denying responsibility. Company execs, PR strategists and attorneys should collaborate.

So what are your observations? Agree or disagree? Suggestions or additional insight?

Wanda Kenton Smith is president of Orlando, Fla.-based Kenton Smith Marketing and president of Marine Marketers America.


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