Hey, BP, take a page from Apple’s book

May 31, 2010 at 12:54 PM 4 comments

Back to www.bookpod.org

NYC to LouisianaThe Google Maps car route from my home in the Bronx to the Gulf of Mexico passes through eight states along thirteen hundred miles of road. Johnson City, Tennessee, the southernmost town along the route that I visited, marks the halfway point. Every state below Johnson City has always struck me as far away, even a little foreign, at least until the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig went up in flames. When you consider that a car trip to Louisiana needs less than forty gallons of that British Petroleum oil now polluting the Gulf, the disaster suddenly looks pretty close to home.

The BP disaster feels familiar, too, largely because we have been-there-and-done-that in this decade with the attack on the World Trade Center and with the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina. All the official posturing, from BP to the White House, reminds me of the gaseous exhalations we heard after 9/11 — that we would fix our national security problem — and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — that we had the opportunity now to create a new city upon the hill. The BP script isn’t much different.

Send in the fishing fleet

We hear from BP officials — and from our elected representatives — that they are committed to cleaning up the spill. In a one-page ad in the Saturday New York Times, BP tells us with great communitarian spirit that the company has organized 1,100 boats, “including local fishing fleets,” into an oil-skimming armada, and that it has set up eighteen claims offices to compensate fisherman for their losses. The ad also informs us that BP has paid out $170 million to “support the [clean-up?] response and tourism in the region.”

I have worked long enough in corporate communications to be stupefied by messaging this flat-footed. I mean, enlisting the help of fishing boats is a strategic plan? Paying out 170 million bucks to the local population is a mea culpa to an economy that depends on tourism and seafood to stay afloat? For BP, that kind of money is a rounding error.

All I keep thinking is, “Wow, the guy who wrote this ad has a job while so many skilled people are worrying what to do when their unemployment checks run out.”

Working nine-to-five

Like all big companies, BP has a publicity machine that executive management ramps up during a “situation.” Or so you would think. The update on the BP website is already a couple of days old. As of Sunday, May 30, the most current press release, dated Saturday, May 29, notes that “BP started the ‘top kill’ operations to stop the flow of oil from the MC252 well in the Gulf of Mexico at 1300 CDT on May 26, 2010.”

Plenty of detail, but it’s outdated.

I’m wondering if the the BP crisis communications people work a Monday-to-Friday schedule.

And I’m wondering if the BP disaster preparedness playbook advises the C-level people to make-it-up-as-you-go-along. “Nobody believed there was going to be a safety issue,” BP drilling engineer Mark E. Hafle told a panel of Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service officials last week. The Times reported Hafle as saying that “[A]ll the risks had been addressed, and we had a model that suggested if executed properly we would have a successful job.”

Well, Mr. Hafle, tell that to the Minerals Management Service, the agency whose director got the boot last week for being asleep at the wheel of her troubled organization. Tell that to President Obama, who is tackling the environmental and economic crisis in the most desultory way, even setting aside time next week to honor ex-Beatle Paul McCartney at a White House concert. Tell that to all the interim directors, subsea supervisors, senior tool pushers, chief operating officers, media relations staff and submarine robots who are cheering each other up with promises that they are doing everything possible to “remedy the crisis.”

What would Woz say?

Don’t bother, though, gassing off to, say, Steve Wozniak, the inventor of the Apple computer. He was the kind of engineer who was drawing schema of computers as a kid. For years Wozniak pondered making a computer by using the least number of parts possible so that when something went wrong, the glitch would be easy to locate. When he finally built the machine, it worked perfectly.

And don’t bother telling that fishing boat story to Max Levchin, one of the PayPal founders. Levchin knew he couldn’t unveil a money transfer website that invited fraud, so he stayed up five days in a row developing code that has been fail-safe for a decade. He even spent “multi-hour sessions” learning about accounting because he knew he had gaps in his knowledge.

Wozniak and Levchin played with every worst-case scenario they could think of in their efforts to make a good product. When a particular design didn’t pan out, they scrapped it and started over again. They would have been mortified to sell a product that would disappoint their customers. Levchin reportedly once mused that he would commit ritual suicide if anybody ever lost money because of him.

I confess that I am one of those people who has worried that the Internet economy is making us stupid. You know, it’s driving us away from books and newspapers and it’s reconfiguring the way our brains work. Considering how unimaginatively the old economy oil companies have behaved in the U.S.’s latest disaster, you have to wonder: Maybe what BP needs now is a little new economy stupidity — and a whole lot of Wozniak-Levchin-style integrity.


Tale of two blown calls. Why saying the right thing in bad times matters. By Tim Hayes.


Entry filed under: Corporate communications, Environment, Politics. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

Something to be said for anonymity The kindness of Chinese strangers

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mirel  |  June 1, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    This is just terrific. You should find a way to publish this piece the old fashioned way, on the op-ed page of the newspaper!

  • 2. Max  |  June 1, 2010 at 2:25 PM

    I agree!

  • 3. Sara Bennett  |  June 1, 2010 at 7:05 PM

    This is different for you. And great. I agree that it’d be a perfect op-ed. I have an email address if you’re interested.

  • 4. Brother Sol  |  June 14, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    With the installation of sensors into the ruptured pipeline, better data on the flow rate could show the oil spill to exceed 100 million gallons. A middle-of-the-road estimate would put the spill at around 66 million gallons of oil, about six times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.


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