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When Oil Spills and Organizational Change Collide

BP CEO Tony Hayward is spending his days and nights urgently responding to the environmental crisis that is crippling the reputation of BP in the global markets. While there may not be enough hours in the day, Hayward is also questioning whether the company will survive, and if reputation recovery is even a remote possibility as approximately 800,000 litres of oil spill into the Gulf daily since April 22nd, only somewhat slowed down with an interim solution.

John Watson and Clive Mather, respective CEOs of Chevron Canada and Shell Canada are also reeling from BP’s disaster – a similar scene no doubt in all offshore oil drilling companies’ boardrooms. Driving the boards’ agendas is the need to communicate their response to public outrage about the potential threat to Canadian waters. Regardless of the discussions, the outcome of these board meetings will be organizational shifts to align themselves with a renewed environmental commitment, communicated internally and externally. Messages will most likely be geared to re-building public trust through announcements of plans to adopt safer ways of working which minimize the threat of catastrophic environmental damage. We will see strategic communications used to align brands with greater environmental accountability. The Oil and Gas industry as a whole will be matured through a renewed focus on corporate responsiveness to environmental disaster recovery.

Extreme situations, such as today’s, will give associated Corporations like Chevron and Shell, an opportunity to be first at the plate as global environmental safety leaders with strong messaging on accountability and delivering a first-rate plan for safety,  and also recovery should the worst happen.

The Floating Message

Similar to the oil floating on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, messages that are not consistent with an underlying strategy and performance are disasters waiting to reach shore. Obvious as this may sound, companies don’t always line up their message with their strategy. Consider a situation of high urgency, where strategic communications must be delivered in conjunction with organizational change execution. Speed of execution in creating sustainable change, while communicating assurances of sound business practises, is a challenging exercise for even the most sophisticated of companies. There are dozens of examples of corporate reputation disasters, where public messages of assurance were shallow and eventually led to a ruinous loss of credibility.

The solution is found in preparing well in advance of a crisis situation, so that at times of crisis the leadership exhibited enhances the Corporate brand.

Beneath the waves

Strategic communication planning works below the surface of the waves, defining what is needed, when and where, especially in times of urgency.  What is needed is defined through a gap analysis of the current state to its future state. Consider executing a deep analysis of employees’ perceived accountability. Review the company’s historical trend of responding to market concerns. Continue with an analysis of core messaging, its impact on the actions and responsiveness of employees. Identify programs that engage employees in protecting and supporting the company’s intrinsic brand value and its reputation (case in point, identifying Shell and Chevron’s environmentally conscious program links). Conclude with comparing the current state with public demand for change, and then defining opportunities. If this seems daunting, you may consider expert guidance to ensure speedy and accurate information.

Next, opportunities are prioritized and communicated to internal resources with a sense of urgency and suggest ways for business units to unite to collaboratively execute solutions. Timely and responsive Change initiatives can make a big difference to Corporations pressured by public demands. It is not hard to imagine the goodwill that could be gained if tomorrow Shell Canada published a roadmap of change initiatives which proactively minimize any threat of catastrophic environmental disaster in Canada. If they were to go further and included a communication schedule of when the public would receive progress updates to goals, and of course deliver on plan, Shell could gain significant brand enhancement. A roadmap published first and then executed well, is at the heart of winning back public trust and demonstrating leadership in Corporate responsibility.

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