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A Little Advice: Four Tips for BP

Doh! Photo: striatic/flickr

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” – Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln or the local neighborhood drunk. Take your pick.

The saying above has saved me from making an dang-blasted idiot of myself numerous times. I strongly recommend that the higher-ups at BP adopt it.

In the latest from the BP School of Disastrous (word intended) Management, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg pulled his tea and crumpets away from this mouth just long enough to shove in his foot and emit this howler: “He [I guess he means CEO Tony “I-Want-My-Life-Back” Hayward] is frustrated because he cares about the small people and we care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don’t care – but that’s not the case with BP. We care about the small people.”

The small people?

This gaffe came yesterday as Svanberg attempted to issue an apology for the largest offshore spill in US history as he was leaving a White House meeting with US President Barack Obama. He said “the small people” not once, not twice, but three times.

See for yourself here.

Already, Svanberg’s comments are making the rounds.

Any head of any organization who knows anything about US culture should know that using “small people” or “little people” won’t win her or him any gold stars.

Svanberg’s gaffe is taking the heat off of Obama, whose Tuesday speech about the Gulf disaster has been pegged as, well, disastrous.

I have no idea who is advising BP in crisis control, but I’m willing to offer a couple of common sense tips for free.

1. Know your audience. I thought this went without saying, but apparently not. Know who will receive your message, which may help you predict how they’ll react. Learn this before you step in front of the mic.

2. Test out what you’re going to say before you go in front of the mic to someone completely unaffiliated with your organization. Grab your partner, find a friend, ask the cab driver. Find someone who will listen without your organization’s psychological headphones on.

3. Test what you’re going to say before you go in front of the mic for someone younger than you. For example, according to some reports, the average 18-year-old in the US consumes almost eight hours of media per day. It sucks for their homework and social life, but maybe, perhaps, it gives them a special eye as to how something would come across in the media. If you can’t find a teen, grab an intern.

4. Ask the receptionist (or the security guard or anyone in your organization in a “silent but seeing” role). Run your statement by someone who is an observer in your place of work and hears (and sees) everything. They know more about your reputation than you do and, if given carte blanche, can respectfully tell you how you’ll come across. They are your sages. Use them.

Svanberg’s statement will probably go down in university rhetoric books as one of the worst public gaffes in recent history. But by taking a step back and learning how to talk to an audience instead of at, Svanberg and BP just may be able to save the tiny, infinitesimal bit of face they have left.

Maybe.

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