Could the behaviour of your boss fuel you next media crisis?

What’s in your crisis communication plan?

Most crisis plans include workplace accidents, data breaches, product recalls, supply chain issues, natural disasters and court cases.

But is there something missing?

Could your next crisis – and threat to your reputation – be fuelled by the organisation’s culture, behaviour of its leaders or its governance – just like BP?

Let’s start by putting some context around this topic.

There are some shocking figures reported in the Financial Times. It says half of forced CEO departures among the 3,000 largest US companies last year were due to personal conduct.

That’s increased by 14 per cent from 2017.

And the most recent example of this in the UK comes from BP.

It found itself in crisis media management mode after Bernard Looney, its chief executive, resigned with immediate effect over personal relationships with staff.

The oil giant had recently started an investigation into alleged relationships Mr Looney had with colleagues - the second in two years.

It said Mr Looney, who has been in the hot seat since 2020, was not "fully transparent" initially.

A lengthy BP statement said: “In May 2022, the board received and reviewed allegations, with the support of external legal counsel, relating to Mr Looney’s conduct in respect of personal relationships with company colleagues. The information came from an anonymous source.

“During that review, Mr Looney disclosed a small number of historical relationships with colleagues prior to becoming CEO. No breach of the company’s code of conduct was found.

“However, the board sought and was given assurances by Mr Looney regarding disclosure of past personal relationships, as well as his future behaviour.

“Further allegations of a similar nature were received recently, and the company immediately began investigating with the support of external legal counsel. That process is ongoing.

“Mr Looney has today informed the company that he now accepts that he was not fully transparent in his previous disclosures. He did not provide details of all relationships and accepts he was obligated to make more complete disclosure.”

The company went on to say that it has “strong values” and that leaders are expected to “act as role models”.

Details of the allegations have not been revealed. But the lack of transparency seems to have been the decisive factor.

Here’s how the crisis has been reported in the media:

BP’s cost of loving crisis The Sun

BP's £10million boss Bernard Looney quits after less than four years in the job admitting he was not 'fully transparent' during a probe into past relationships with colleagues Daily Mail

BP boss Bernard Looney quits after board misled over relationships BBC News

BP chief Bernard Looney resigns over past relationships with colleagues Financial Times

BP chief executive Bernard Looney quits £10m-a-year job over 'past relationships with colleagues Sky News

The resignation signals a dramatic fall from grace for Mr Looney, a man who had spent his entire career at BP.

But it is also not an isolated incident of boardroom behaviour threatening individual and organisational reputations.

Internal issues are increasingly becoming the triggers of external crises.

A damaging crisis earlier this year saw Tony Danker, the boss of the CBI sacked following complaints about his behaviour.

Mr Danker claimed he had been made the “fall guy”. And high-profile organisations, including John Lewis, Virgin Media, 02, NatWest and B&Q suspended or ended their membership with the scandal-hit trade body.

Crispin Odey left his finance firm Odey Asset Management in June over sexual assault and harassment allegations reported in the Financial Times. He has denied the claims.

And there are similarities between the BP crisis and what happened at McDonald’s a few years ago. Steve Easterbrook, the company’s British boss, was fired in 2019 for having a secret relationship with an employee.

The fast-food giant said he had shown “poor judgement” and “violated company policy”. He was later fined $400,000 (£328,000) by the US regulator for “concealing the extent of his misconduct”.

As the Financial Times figures we highlighted earlier show, this is an increasingly prominent issue.

And it can result in a particularly challenging type of crisis to manage.

If a crisis centres on a senior leader, it can be harder to respond quickly, particularly if they don’t feel they have done anything wrong.

It can also be an uncomfortable scenario to create crisis communication plans for. There is a difference between planning for crises caused by operational incidents and ones about people you know or may feel are unlikely to find themselves facing allegations about their behaviour.

But this awkwardness has to be overcome. Just like other types of crises, planning is crucial.

You only have one reputation.

And when it is under pressure from personal affairs and internal issues, you must be able to act quickly and decisively, showing you are treating the issues seriously and are taking steps to try to prevent something similar happening in the future. It is the only way to show you are in control.

 

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This can only be done with carefully considered crisis communication plans that have been tested, no matter how uncomfortable the subject may feel. And by having a close working relationship between comms and HR.

BP still faces questions about whether it had previously ignored concerns about Mr Looney’s behaviour, with sources telling the media his relationships were an “open secret” in the organisation.

But it acted decisively last week, temporarily replacing Mr Looney with the experienced Murray Auchincloss, its chief financial officer.

And he quickly delivered a webcast to all BP staff, stressing it was business as usual.

"While the person in the CEO's chair has changed, the fundamentals have not changed,” he said.

He added: “Today, just like every day in BP, we go to work in the field, in our refineries, in offices, at sea, at our retail sites. Thousands of people, all over the world, all of whom deserve to go home safely.”

It is also being reported that the company has launched a review of all personal relationships between staff, particularly at senior levels.

Its crisis response appears to have limited the damage.

But perhaps we should not be surprised. This is the third CEO to abruptly leave BP. John Browne, Tony Hayward (no stranger to our crisis communication training blogs), and Mr Looney have all prematurely departed the firm since 2007 for different reasons.

So, it’s had plenty of practise.

And maybe its crisis communication plans are now well-tested and cover awkward scenarios like leadership behaviour.  

Could you say the same about your organisation?

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our crisis communication training courses.

 

 

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