I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable Independence Day! Because of where I live, I’m in close proximity to the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” which, for those non-geography buffs out there, refers to Minnesota. Every year over the Fourth of July holiday, my extended family heads to our lake cabin for fun, sun and quality bonding time. As I enjoyed the beautiful scenery and clear blue water splashing on the sand, I couldn’t help but think about how fortunate I was to be enjoying a vacation at the beach – not the “real” beach near the ocean, but close enough. Those in the southern area of the country, particularly the Gulf States, aren’t so fortunate.

The disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been going on for more than two months – and it looks like it won’t end for at least another six weeks. Despite being a huge blow to the Gulf States economy, the catastrophe has been detrimental to BP. After all, the company has worked hard to position itself as an “environmental” oil company, right down to the cute little flower logo. Nothing like an oil spill to shoot a big hole through that image. But even worse is how the company is handling the situation. It’s my opinion that BP is in serious PR trouble and would benefit from a few crisis management lessons.

First, know your audience. Especially in the case of an international company, appoint a spokesperson that understands the language and the cultural dimension of that audience. This person doesn’t necessarily need to be an executive or the president, but he/she does need to be credible, well-spoken and a good reflection of the company image. This will allow the company to gain and keep the audience’s trust.

Second, honesty is the best policy. People are more appreciative of an honest answer, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Don’t paint a rosy picture or promise things you can’t deliver. If you don’t know how to address the issue at hand, say so. But assure your audience you are taking all the steps necessary to resolve it. Again, if they feel they’re getting an honest answer from a reputable spokesperson, they’ll trust you.

Beyond helping a company climb out of a negative situation, good PR can also prevent damaging attacks from competitors, simply by giving them less ammunition. Companies are always looking for opportunities to point out a competitor’s flaws – so don’t give them any more to talk about. Because, let’s face it, when a company is struggling, it’s a perfect opportunity for competitors to sneak right in and start grabbing market share.

Which brings me to the ethical question of the day: Should BP’s competitors attempt to capitalize on this disaster and use it as a ploy to advertise themselves and boost their own images? There has to be some hesitation to take an environmental disaster and use it for the benefit of your company…but then again, it’s just business, right?

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