If I were BP, what would I do now?

There’s no disputing the Gulf Oil Spill is a disaster of epic proportions. From the initial lives lost in the explosion to the major disruptions of livelihoods and communities around the gulf. Let’s also not discount the untold environmental destruction of sensitive marshlands and now the 22 mile plume threatening an underwater canyon that serves as a major food source off Florida’s west coast.

And since the leak is still going more than 40 days later – with possibility of running into August – we certainly haven’t even seen the total impact of this catastrophe. This is something that will take years to clean up and repair (if it can be totally repaired at all). That said, it probably need not be said that the BP brand is at an all time low. Trust is gone. Not that it was all that high to begin with. Nor do we have a lot of confidence going forward: learning that there were mistakes made at many levels combined with lax oversight before the spill – that had the warning signs been heeded could possibly have prevented this mess only adds to the fire.

But that’s hindsight now. It happened and BP and all of us can only move forward. So given all this, how might BP respond?

With complete openness. To have any serious chance of regaining the public trust and redeeming the BP brand, they need to come clean. Skip the PR spin, stop blocking people from touring affected areas and proceed with absolute openness.

Be transparent. Cover nothing up and speak in plain language. Be conversational. Provide real reporting vs. the shiny spin presented by the BP reporters. In fact, you’d have more credibility if you piped in a news feed from objective eye-witness accounts. Again, show the unvarnished truth.

Exercise humility. The world is watching. Take off the polish and spin. Don’t paint such a happy picture of the relief effort on your site. I do applaud your putting the response front and center on your website – you really didn’t have a choice, however.

Reinvent the company. Since you’re down, use this as an opportunity to reinvent the company. Turn it inside out to become the oil company that puts communities first. Not profits. The company that operates authentically. An oil company that’s actually a good steward of the environment and the communities in which you operate.

Innovate. Partner with the leading thinkers on the environment and corporate responsibility. Partner with your enemies. Set aside corporate greed and think long term. It’s possible to exercise corporate responsibility – and sustainability and still earn a good profit.

Work towards the common good. Don’t short circuit any of the clean up. Take care of every individual and community affected in the most frictionless way possible. And use this as a lesson to never take shortcuts. Rewrite all of your safety policies. Transform your culture into one of accountability and humanity.

And make sure your communications and PR teams are up to speed on the current online channels. Olivier Blanchard wrote a great post on what happens because they’re not – underscoring the importance of listening and being proactive in protecting your brand (but not by exerting heavy-handed control – that doesn’t work any longer). If you act more human, people might feel less compelled to hijack your brand.

Complete the job at hand. And above all else, make sure you follow through on cleaning up every drop of oil no matter how long it takes. Demonstrate through your actions that we can trust you. I’m not sure you can fall much further, so you have the opportunity to radically transform yourself into a forward thinking, humane enterprise. Those that think it’s not possible should take a page from IBM – See Lou Gerstner’s great book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?.

We’re much less likely to kick someone when they’re down, but try and cover it up and you’ll be mercilessly pursued. So admit that there were many things that could have been done differently. It’s always the cover up that creates the biggest problem and is usually exposed.

Rewrite all of the copy on your website in human terms. Again, scrap the corporate speak. We see right through it. Show us exactly how much you’re investing in alternative energies and moving forward to a world less dependent on oil. Don’t give it lip service because you have to. Have a conversation with all of us. Again, be open.

Let’s not blame the Obama administration for the initial failure. The  environment that allowed this to happen started long before. What we can hold them accountable for is how they operate going forward. By instilling full accountability in their oversight.

I do wonder what happens if the cost for clean up exceeds the total value of your company. And what if there’s a second incident? What then? Who will you partner with? On whom will you offload the cost? The more you try to control, spin and cover up the most damaging information, the harder we’ll work to uncover it and less sympathy we’ll have. Remember all of us have equal channels to share our point of view. We may not have the deep pockets to promote that point of view via traditional channels, but have the power to engage the masses by cutting through the clutter. By NOT spinning. I know it’s painful, but let it all out there BP and let us decide for ourselves what to think. You’ll gain points for credibility. And we’ll be more apt to forgive once we see your sincere commitment.

BP, you have an opportunity to create significant change and become a model citizen for other oil companies to follow. You have the opportunity to exercise serious leadership. The question is, do you have the desire?

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