Out of touch

Successful corporate image management means delivering on a credible strategy via actions as well as communications, says David Bernstein. How come BP has failed so miserably?

Henry Ford’s put-down of the past is famous: ’History is bunk’. Less well known is his observation on the future: ’You can’t build a reputation on what you intend to do’. This contradicts his earlier utterance, since reputation is built on corporate history, past achievements which serve as reassurance for promises of future achievements. Corporate ads are heavy with intentions. But commitments, mission statements and proclaimed values are all worthless unless they serve both as a guide to action and a template for performance.

Where they don’t, words and deeds exist in parallel universes. The corporation makes worthy pronouncements safe in the belief that it is unlikely to be called to account. Corporate dissonance is the difference between what a company says and what it does. This disconnect is nothing new, but it has achieved special intensity in the BP affair. Here the parallel universes of the executive floor and real life have got up close and personal. Mission statement meets emission statement.

Does BP regret its marketing campaign which attempted to change the meaning of its initials from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum? If only BP could stand for Beyond Perusal, but, alas, every word and action of its chief executive and chairman is subject to analysis. The recent disasters – both viscous and verbal – have undone years of careful communication management. It was 20 years ago that BP embraced the burgeoning Green movement, declaring its espousal of transparency with a full page ad in The Green Magazine, the headline of which reads, ’Oil companies tend to invite criticism. At BP, we actively encourage it.’ The copy begins, ’As an oil company we’re a natural target for environmental groups. But, in our view, the more criticism we get, the better, because being criticised is one of the best ways to learn.’

So presumably Tony Hayward and Carl-Henric Svanberg profited from an intense learning experience fired by the Deepwater Horizon explosion – although, to judge from their remarks to the media and the US Senate, there is scant evidence of improved behaviour, or a sense of responsibility. The US philosopher Charles Frankel once termed a decision to be responsible ’when the person or group that makes it has to answer for it to those who are directly or indirectly affected by it’.

Those directly affected in the Gulf of Mexico sought answers from those responsible. At a town hall meeting in Louisiana, reported on by Naomi Klein in The Guardian last month, local citizens confronted BP executives. A shrimper took the microphone and said, ’We just don’t trust you guys.’ A woman accused them of not knowing ’what is going to happen to our Gulf… [you] act like you know, when you don’ t know’.

That’s what happens when you live in a parallel universe. You’re detached from reality. Economist JK Galbraith detected this in some US companies when, in ’The Age of Affluence’, he wrote, ’There is a corporate myth which is carefully, assiduously propagated. And there is the reality. They bear little relation to each other. The modern corporation lives in suspension between fiction and truth.’

A company’s image is a reality, the result not of fancy words and design, but of its actions. If the image is unfavourable, then the company probably deserves the reputation because it reflects the truth, or because the company mismanages its communication. Either way (in BP’s case both), management is at fault.

David Bernstein was founder of The Creative Business and is a creative consultant

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