Ike’s Crisis Communications Plan: A Lesson for All Time
[Originally posted on June 23, 2010]
On June 4, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of allied forces in Europe, gave the go-ahead for the largest military operation in history, the June 6 amphibious assault by 170,000 men at arms against the German-held beaches of Normandy.
D-Day was a high-stakes, high-risk massive military operation and there were no guarantees it would succeed. So the day before the assault Ike prepared a crisis communications plan in case of failure. Here it is, in its entirety:
On that single piece of paper (which he misdated July 5 instead of June 5), Ike used a mere 66 words to set the responsibility and integrity bar high for all authority figures who would follow him: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” Ike then folded the piece of paper, put it in his pocket and waited to see if it would be needed.
Ike’s lessons — prepare a crisis communications plan and accept responsibility for your actions — appear to have been lost in the mists of history. Today the typical response to crises is blame-shifting, finger-pointing and responsibility-shirking.
Which brings us to BP and the Gulf oil spill. I have written about the company’s top brass and their unfailing knack for inserting their feet in their mouths almost every time they opened them to speak. Now I’d like to address BP’s crisis communications plan; if there was such a plan. BP seems not to have had a crisis management plan in the first place and you need a crisis management plan before you can create a crisis communications plan. If any company in the oil industry should have had such plans, it is BP.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” author George Santayana wrote in 1905. BP appears to suffer from severe near-term memory loss. Only five years ago an explosion at the company’s Texas City, TX refinery killed 15 workers and injured hundreds more. OSHA fined the company $87 million for failing to correct safety violations which had been called to BP’s attention by government inspectors. Four years ago, BP’s Alaska pipeline sprung a major leak, forcing the shutdown of one of the country’s largest oil fields. A criminal probe of the pipeline disaster resulted in BP paying a $20 million fine for allowing the pipeline to fall into a state of dangerous disrepair.
These incidents had me wondering whether it would not have cost less than the $107 million BP paid in fines to take the safety steps that would have avoided those catastrophes. Also, it made me wonder why a company hit with such fines and bad publicity would be anything but totally assiduous about safety compliance going forward. And why a company with such a history would not have robust crisis management and communications plans on the shelf and ready to deploy in the event of a new disaster.
(If BP had such plans,were they developed with the same attention to detail as the company’s environmental impact statements which spoke of protecting Gulf of Mexico walruses and other sea creatures which do not live in those waters?)
In addition to a crisis management plan and a crisis communications plan, BP needed spokespersons attuned to the public. Instead of a CEO who told the Today Show he wanted his life back and instead of a board chairman who talked about the “small people,” BP needed spokespersons who exhibited empathy for those impacted by its disaster.
In “How to Master the Media” I devote a chapter to crisis communications plans. Here, in outline form is what a spokesperson needs to explain in a crisis:
I. How dangerous is this situation to the public, the economy, the environment.
II. If there is a direct danger, what individual steps should the public take to mitigate the threat.
III. If there is no direct threat to individuals, how can they help others who may be threatened.
IV. What steps are we — the responsible entity — taking to mitigate the situation and to see that it never happens again.
A. Does the public play any role in these steps?
B. How will the response allocate mitigation and recovery resources equitably and fairly.
C. How will the response avoid squandering resources, including recovery personnel, material and funds.
In addition to those five main points, there are four steps that go a long way toward making the crisis communications plan work and toward gaining public understanding of the disaster management plan:
I. Early response to the crisis.
II. Frequent, forthright and uncomplicated media accessibility to spokespersons and to mitigation efforts.
IV. Consistent candor.
BP fell down on the last three of the four and its evasions, denials, and finger-pointing went a long way toward nullifying the fact that it was on the scene and communicating soon after the blast, fire and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon and the world record oil spill that followed.
What would the company’s response would have been if someone of General Eisenhower’s integrity had been Supreme Commander of BP? Of course, Ike’s D-Day invasion, although one of history’s bloodiest and most violent battles, was a success. The general and his staff had crafted a massive plan, scrupulously oversaw its details, cut no corners, spared no expense and suffered no fools. So had an Eisenhower been at the helm of BP, perhaps there would have been no crisis to respond to. But if there had been, it’s likely that the soundbite we would be discussing would have been, “If any blame or fault attaches, it is mine alone,” and not BP President Tony Hayward’s, “You know, I’d like my life back.”
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