Alastair Campbell Questions BP's Comms Strategy
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Alastair Campbell Questions BP's Comms Strategy

Alastair Campbell publicly questioned BP’s crisis strategy today, saying that the beleagured oil giant was paying the price for downgrading the importance of comms within the company.

Paul Holmes

By Arun Sudhaman

BRUSSELS: Alastair Campbell publicly questioned BP’s crisis strategy today, saying that the beleagured oil giant was paying the price for downgrading the importance of comms within the company.

The former director of strategic communications for Tony Blair feels that the BP communication department held a more influential role when the company was headed by former CEO Lord Browne, compared to the current situation under Tony Hayward.

Campbell made the comments during a speech on strategic communication at the European Communications Summit in Brussels. He said that BP was a “very good example” of a company that did not have a natural understanding of communication. A failure to communicate well prior to the crisis, what Campbell called “landing dots”, had returned to haunt the company after its disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Let’s be frank, the comms has not been very good,” said Campbell during his speech, adding that BP’s crisis response had been “exacerbated by the lack of good comms…in terms of landing dots before.”

Campbell went on to say that, at BP, “comms is less at the top table than it used to be.” “That might be the reason they are communicating like they are now.”

In comments made to the Holmes Report after his speech, Campbell said that he felt BP’s current approach may stem from a feeling that Lord Browne’s regime was too focused on image. BP’s media relations was headed by Roddy Kennedy until 2009, when he was succeeded by former FT editor and Lehman Brothers comms chief Andrew Gowers. Internal and external comms is led by David Bickerton, who succeeded former Blair aide Anji Hunter in 2007.

During a well-received speech that preceded a signing session for his new book, Campbell said that the relentless pace of change made strategy critical to an organisation’s communications. Campbell pointed to several drivers of change, including increasing citizen empowerment, the acceleration of digital media and a “more aggressive, judgemental media.”

“To me, strategic comms is the painting of a picture over time that connects what you are trying to say with what the public over time are hearing,” said Campbell. “It’s not that complicated. But too many people who are communicating are not natural communicators.”

Campbell used his former boss Tony Blair as an example of someone who “understood comms at his core.” However, Campbell does not rate Blair as the best communicator he has seen.

“It upsets Tony when I say this,” said Campbell. “Bill Clinton was the greatest communicator I ever saw.”

Campbell noted that a communications strategy also needed to be adaptable, and flagged up John McCain’s US presidential campaign to prove his point. “His basic message was: ‘Experience and I’m not George Bush,” said Campbell, pointing out the the selection or running mate Sarah Palin amounted to “George Bush, in a skirt, with lipstick.”

Significantly, Campbell said that organisations are confronted today by a “neverending campaign”. He also said that the banks had suffered by not putting strategic comms in a central position before the crises began. “Where are the comms people? If they had been there right at the start – and in the best organisations they are but in most organisations they are not – some of these issues might not have arisen.”

“The silo system just does not work,” he concluded. “Comms does have to provide an art to the whole thing.”

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