Paul Holmes 14 Nov 2010 // 2:34PM GMT
FT’s Lex column quotes Iago—“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving”—and then warns that reputation “are fickle, especially those of the corporate variety.” To make his point, Lex then reminds us that “until April 20, BP was an admired oil company.” (Hat tip to Neil Drewitt at our LinkedIn discussion group.) I think Lex has this wrong, at least partially. Reputations can have tremendous endurance if they are built on authentic action rather than exaggeration or downright deception. The problem with BP’s “beyond petroleum” campaign was that it was driven by marketing thinking rather than public relations thinking. It was all about a catchy slogan, a glossy ad campaign, about aspirations rather than actions. As a result it created the worst (and most dangerous) kind of reputation a company can have: one that is better than the reality. So what kind of advice would a good public relations counselor have given to BP when it embarked upon its “beyond petroleum” campaign? First, he or she would have said, you have to communicate your commitment to employees, in a way that convinces them you are serious. That means making it clear that the people who are most richly rewarded are those whose actions contribute to weaning the company off petroleum, and that the bonus system rewards safety and punishes any behavior to leads to environmental harm. Second, he or she would have said, you have to communicate your commitment to shareholders, explaining the short-term gains you have passed up because of this commitment, and the long-term benefit you anticipate as a result of reducing environmental risk. Third, he or she would have said, you have to change the way you approach public affairs. You have to speak out whenever someone denies climate change, or the role that petroleum plays in the problem. You have to drop your opposition to sensible safety regulations and when the regulations are enacted you have to demonstrate that you are going beyond compliance, providing industry leadership. Once you’ve done all of those things, then you can start talking to consumers and the general public, focusing on the things you’ve actually done rather than all the great things you’re going to do, at some indeterminate point in the future. If you’re not prepared to do all those things, it’s probably best not to say anything at all. Admit that you don’t care enough about the environment to change the way you do business. Let people know that by the time climate change begins to seriously impact America, you’ll either be dead or rich enough to make sure you’re immune from the worst effect. Tell them their children will have to solve their own damn problems. At least that will be authentic.