to deserve this?” to “I’d like my life back,”
top management keeps leaking its sense
of its own victimization. The corporate
expressions of compassion for the real
victims ring false, I suspect, because they
are false. Compassion is hard to fake.
But maybe BP management does feel
for the victims and just can’t communicate it. At least part of the problem is
that compassion isn’t credible (even if
it’s real) when it’s expressed by a perpetrator who’s unwilling to express contrition first. Almost everything BP has said
about what Gulf Coast residents are
going through could have been said by a
sympathetic third party.
Determination is a different story. BP
hasn’t just expressed its determination to
make things right. It has acted on that
Days after the spill began, BP announced that it wouldn’t try to hide behind the $75 million statutory liability
limit for marine oil spills but would pay
all legitimate claims.
Instead of praising this decision, commentators complained that the word “
legitimate” was a loophole that could let
BP out of paying some claims. And they
pointed out that the $75 million limit
wouldn’t apply anyway if BP or any of
its contractors had been grossly negligent or had violated any federal safety
regulations. The latter, at least, is a safe
bet. There are so many regs it’s inconceivable that none were violated. So BP
may have been smart rather than generous in forswearing the limit rather than
giving the government yet another reason to document the violations.
In the months that followed, BP set up
a claims payment procedure that critics
have grudgingly conceded was fast and
fair. (Even fishermen who had cheated
on their taxes were allowed to submit
“informal” evidence that their lost income was higher than their tax forms
showed.) Then BP and the Obama administration negotiated a $20 billion
claims fund, with more money to come
if it turns out to be needed.
It’s not especially surprising that a
company run by engineers would be more
genuine in its determination to fix the
problem than in its contrition for having
caused it or its compassion for the victims.
Fixing problems is what engineers do;
contrition and compassion are the sorts of
things humanities majors go on about.
But BP hasn’t been able to convince
anyone of its determination either.
At least one reason is that normal
people think like humanities majors. Certainly victims do. We rightly sense that
BP isn’t really contrite or compassionate.
That exacerbates our outrage. It makes
us doubt the evidence that BP is determined to plug the leak and clean up the
mess. Worse, it makes us want to see BP
as the kind of company that will try to
wriggle out of its cleanup obligations
unless the government keeps its boot
firmly planted on the company’s neck.
We think like humanities majors in
another way as well. The unfolding
drama of the Deepwater Horizon spill
has revived the public’s sense of the
tragic: our sense that not all problems
have solutions. People realize that no
one can “clean up the mess” in the Gulf
of Mexico entirely. One source of our
unwillingness to trust BP’s determination
to “make it right” is our understanding
that making it right is relative.
4. Say how stupid you feel.
When a company misbehaves, there are
only two possible explanations for its misbehavior that don’t sound like excuses:
evil/greed and stupidity/incompetence.
Which is more common, corporate evil
or corporate stupidity? I’d say stupidity,
by a mile. Which does the public think is
more common? Evil. Which does the company’s reputation more harm? Again, evil.
These facts are the basis for what I
call “the stupidity defense.” Unless you
aggressively claim stupidity, the default
explanation for your misbehavior is evil.
If you were, in fact, stupid, you should
Having lost roughly half its shareholder value, BP pretty obviously was
stupid. On clearheaded days, I’ll bet BP
management feels it was stupid (on less
clearheaded days management no doubt
feels it was unlucky and victimized). But
the company isn’t saying so, and evil
has become the almost universally accepted explanation … as if an oil company would greedily twirl its mustaches
while it intentionally destroyed half its
Smart companies assess the probability
and magnitude of various risks, and the
assessment helps them decide which risks
to take and which to avoid or mitigate.
Almost by definition, a company that
loses half its shareholder value in an oil
spill did a faulty risk assessment (or none
at all). It was stupid. A lot of precautions
BP didn’t take look pretty obviously cost-
effective now. And not just in hindsight:
it’s obvious now that it should have been
Author’s note: I have consulted periodically for BP
Trader oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif. In 1992, BP
magazine, Shield. My most recent work for BP was in
can befound on his website, www.psandman.com,
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