06/21/2010 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

BP and Risk Communication: They Just Don't Get It

Much was made over the weekend of BP CEO Tony Hayward yachting off the English coast. How ridiculous. Both the yachting, and the fuss. An ABC reporter showed Louisianans photos of Hayward on his boat and inanely asked "Does this look like a guy in charge?" It's not as if Hayward has a wrench in his hand and can personally do anything to shut off the oil gushing from BP's well. It's not as though there weren't cell phones on Hayward's boat by which he could be as in touch with the spill site as if he were at his desk, or even there in person.

And yet, as fair as those arguments made by his staff might be, how oblivious it was for him to try to "get his life back" in such a symbolically stupid way... luxuriating in a classic symbol of affluence, enjoying clear sailing over clean waters. It's a really wonderful example of the biggest problem in risk and crisis communication, and the reason why so many otherwise smart people do and say things that are so dumb. They just don't get "it."

"It" is how people affected by a risk feel. Risk -- the chance that something bad might happen -- is, after all, a subjective thing. We can do all the fact-based risk assessment we want to try to make the most informed decision, but in the end we interpret that factual information through subjective/affective/instinctive filters. Many of the psychological risk perception factors that shape our judgments are well known, and apply here:

  • We are more upset by risks that are human-made than threats that are natural. (Ergo the common lust for blame.)

  • We are more upset by risks brought upon us by untrusted institutions (sorry, oil industry, but you've earned that one).
  • We are more upset by risks that are catastrophic - big singular events - as opposed to chronic risks that do far more damage, but which are spread over space and time, like the much greater harms we're doing to the oceans all over the world (and the Gulf of Mexico) everyday.
  • We are more upset by risks when they are personified...when we see the faces or names of actual victims, like the families of the 11 oil rig workers killed, or the working people (as opposed to yacht owners) whose livelihoods have been destroyed, or even the "heart rending" images of dead birds and wildlife.
  • That's the emotional context of this risk. The feelings "It" that BP doesn't seem to get, the emotional reality that has to be respected, but has been so blatantly disrespected by too much of what BP has done and said. Effective risk communication, which is both actions and messages, starts when the communicator takes the feelings and interests of the affected parties to heart, and truly understands and respects the powerful emotions that risk evokes. It's hard to imagine that Mr. Hayward and his advisors are taking those concerns to heart if they fail to sense how insulting a yachting outing would be to the fishermen and women along the Gulf who can't use their boats to make a living. It's hard to imagine Mr. Hayward taking those concerns to heart when he says he wants his life back, his affluent privileged yachting life, when thousands of working class people are out of work. It's hard to imagine, given a litany of actions and statements by BP which put BP's interests first, that they get it...truly sense and respect the anger and pain and mistrust that is costing the company so much beyond the direct costs of the gushing oil.

    That's actually what amazes me the most. As a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, it stuns me that the otherwise smart people who run organizations... and politicians, for that matter... can't see that it is in their best interest to sincerely put the feelings of others first. Emphasis on sincerely. When risk is involved, and especially in crisis conditions, the need to establish (or repair) trust goes way up. The best way to help build that trust is to truly take to heart the way people feel, to show sincere respect for their concerns. With that foundation, the risk communication that follows, in actions and messages, can't make the kinds of mistakes Hayward and BP have made. Without it you have insincere PR and, people being fairly astute about who they should trust, they'll detect the insincerity and the risk communication will do more harm than good.

    Easy for me to say. Hard for the fourth largest corporation on the planet and its CEO to do, especially given how the yachting race played out this weekend. Mr. Hayward is likely to be in foul spirits. He lost.