Paul Holmes 19 Oct 2010 // 2:42PM GMT
I don’t know whether the public relations team at BP had any input into this decision, and I’m fairly certain that even if they did the company would bristle at my description of it—but the fact is that the decision to link executive compensation to health and safety performance is a brilliant PR ploy. I know, I know… we’re all used to hearing that term as a pejorative, but a decision like this one—safety will be the sole criterion for bonus—provides PR professionals with a “teachable moment.” (And it provides me with an opportunity to bang on, once again, about why public relations is so much more than just communications.) Public relations, as I may have mentioned before, is about managing the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders, including the broader society in which it operates. These days, more than ever, that relationship must be grounded in authentic values, values that are embedded in the culture of the organization. And the best way to embed values in the culture of an organization is to incentivize the kind of behavior that embodies those values. (My favorite illustration of this came from my old—and late—friend Geoff Nightingale, who ran employee communications at Burson-Marsteller. He once told me that the difference between the U.S. military’s performance in the Second World War and Vietnam came down to incentives: in World War Two, troops were sent into action knowing they would only get to go home after the war was won; in Vietnam, they were told that their tour would end after a defined period of time. One approach incentivized victory, the other survival. Geoff believed that America’s poor performance in Vietnam could be attributed to a failure of employee communications.) In any case, the BP decision is brilliant PR first in that it sends a signal to the market that the culture is changing—an important first step in rebuilding the company credibility; and second—and more importantly—in that it encourages the kind of behavior throughout the organization that will help it avoid similar crises in the future. That’s great public relations.