Avoiding PR Disaster: 3 Open Leadership Lessons For BP

Embracing Social Media Through Open Leadership


Charlene Li (@CharleneLi), founder of the Altimeter Group and one of the most renowned social media experts, changed the way we think about social media with the launch of her book Groundswell. Her motto behind her work and research is that it’s not the technology, but the people who ultimately drive success.  She recently published a new book titled Open Leadership, which explains how leaders can win by letting go of control, having an honest, open dialogue, and learning from the successes and failures along the way. Today, leaders must prepare for organizational shift as social technologies continue to disrupt traditional structures. Companies must be prepared to move away from the traditional model and mindset of being paranoid and controlling of corporate information to a newer model of open leadership. This new model catapults transparency and two-way engagement to further develop a culture of sharing. I urge you to read the latest blog interview with Li by The Public Relations Strategist.    

“Revolutions create the ‘moments of faith’ and support in ‘moments of crisis'”. This is a great lesson in light of what companies such as Intel, Nestle and BP have been facing in recent months. This is a lesson in a time where leaders must embrace the changing tide in transparency and information sharing. With news traveling at light speed, companies can’t afford to waste any time being pessimistic and thinking it will go away. The more you shut off from the world and close your eyes and ears to the noise in the market around your brand, the more damaging effect this approach can have on the overall brand experience. 

There is a real opportunity to demonstrate honor and ethics through collaboration, honesty and openness. Dealing with risk and failure is never easy. BP knows this all too well. After the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, killing 11 workers and spilling millions of barrels of oil, BP faces what could be the biggest ecological debacle in the history of mankind. The lesson here is this: we understand the impact of social media and know how we must monitor and engage it. But, without the true buy-in from leadership in understanding the full impact, it may be a losing war. Li lists out some great recommendations on how leaders win by letting go:  

  • Identify the top 5-10 worst case scenarios
  • Develop contingency and mitigation plans
  • Prepare everyone for inevitable failures

This is all good, but unless we are able to get leaders to understand what it takes to be open and to move in that direction on all accounts, the effort of putting these plans together is meaningless. For example, BP could have taken the following approach:  

  •  Immediately launched an open forum where anyone can go for aggregated news about the oil spill. Include blogs from the executive leaders on what happened, how it happened and what BP was doing to mitigate this ecological disaster. The forum would also provide the ability to ask BP leaders questions and to comment on the crisis. This type of open, two-way engagement would have allowed BP executives to address the community and environmental concerns.
  • Launched a full social media communication campaign – going on the offense to monitor and openly address and communicate via all social media and networking channels. This helps build trust that you’re not hiding behind the corporate curtains and legal safety net. It also shows the humanity behind the corporation and adds a human voice.
  • Proactive community outreach to demonstrate that BP cares about corporate gains and numbers, yet the company and its executives relate and understand the impact the spill is having on communities and environmental groups.
  • Build partnerships spanning across communities, lawmakers and environmental groups to further the agenda of putting safety and the environment first. Really see it through that there are action items attached to their partnerships.

What are the actions you should have in place should a crisis break? It’s not about shutting down or limiting the amount of communication you put out there. It’s about taking proactive measures to engage and openly talk about the issues and define what the company is doing. This needs to come directly from the leaders of the company who have executive authority and a thorough understanding of the crisis. This shows that, from the top down, your company really understands today’s digital world, your community, your brand position and its perception. So, leaders, ask yourselves this:  

  • Are you ready to let go of the control you never had?
  • How open you want to be?
  • Are you ready to nurture your leaders?
  • And, are you ready to build practices into your organization to sustain openness?

Below is a wonderful slidedeck from Li on How Leaders Win By Letting Go (courtesy of Slideshare). Her new book Open Leadership is now available. Let me know your thoughts on this blog post and whether you think leaders are ready to take the next step to embrace openness and what they need to do to effectively prepare for the organizational shift.  

Other Related Blogs:  

Welcome to the Dark Side of Social Media  

Social Media: Technology Versus People  



  1. Interesting blog, Cindy. Your point about letting go of the control you never had is key – along with the point that the most difficult work behind being transparent is convincing the executive team that this is how the company needs to operate. Speaking as my paranoid self, I do think that sometimes reality trumps contigency plan worst case scenarios, but better to do some planning beforehand than brace yourself for the complete unknown. Wise advice!

  2. Great topic! Charlene Li’s concept on leadership is forward thinking, and all leaders should take note. We come in contact with many company leaders that tend to be more reactive than proactive with their approach to social media and PR “disasters.” Being prepared is key and having a social media policy in place that is connected to other marketing efforts can be a great asset. That way internally employees have a reference on how to handle brand management online and also can learn through training what to escalate to management.

    The leaders set the tone for the organization, so if there is an openness at the top, this will trickle down through the culture of the company and will ultimately affect the brand in more positive ways.


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