If it bleeds, it leads. And if the news media are the bloodied, even superficially, you’ve got yourself a surefire headline.

Thus we had the Reuters’ dispatch on BP chief Bob Dudley’s maiden speech on the oil spill crisis hitting the internet as “BP CEO slams media…” tuning up a chorus of blog and media scorn.

Did Dudley earn the reaction? Does public opinion require the new leader of the company emerging from tragic, harmful circumstances to provide nothing but mea culpas, modesty and money?

Answer to the first question seems easy. Blowback was surely expected by the BP communications team and Dudley, who began showing his smooth grasp of media relations when he was cleaning up gaffes by his then superiors in the early Gulf crisis days.

They slipped in the jab near the end of the speech—sort of a p.s. to a comprehensive presentation of facts and commitments—and even then it was hardly a “slam.”

It did seem somewhat unrealistic—and a trifle pouty—for a CEO to appear dismayed by media attention:

“Over 87 days as the oil kept flowing into the ocean, it frequently felt as if we were the only story on the news, 24/7. I have seen figures that in some months fully 30% of the 24 hour news coverage was devoted to the incident.”

Well, chief, welcome to transparency and eyeball competition. This is the inevitable, call it dark, star turn for a company in trouble in the digital age.

Over the last almost half-year, BP’s communications pros have showed grasp of this reality. They aided the crisis coverage, and probably deflated some irresponsibility, with an aggressive 24/7 website, interactive tweets, print ads and the nonstop 80-plus-day internet show of the bubbling oil leak. (I chart as the climax of the BP crisis the day the bubbling was clear; on that day, major tension was relieved and reputation recovery could begin.)

In any event, Dudley was able to use the Council of British Industry platform to deal with the complex crisis mix of faulty judgments, leak and harm estimates from media sources who are agile in the age of vocal and viral media, and to man up for the rocky road of recovery.

I was impressed by Dudley’s daring ability to show statesmanship, to say what the oil industry as a whole needs, starting with better safety technology. It comes across, at least in reading the text, as a plausible (less defensive than you would think) way to rise from the rubble of crisis. His message of compassion and commitment was as clear and consistent as any I’ve seen crafted.

By making his remarks to the London business group, Dudley worked the strategy that crisis communications is less about “public” relations and far more about stakeholders and their perceptions. He took the message home, to firm up the base.

And Dudley got ahead of the next news blast, an anticipated American TV documentary probing BP operational safety, hoping (as he said in his London speech) “we can reach a balanced and informed judgment about what happened and what we need to learn.”

The full speech is worth retention as instructive in classic post-climax public responses in corporate crises. It’s not about slamming or not slamming the media. It’s about recreating the trust of the stakeholders.

E. Bruce Harrison
Adjunct Professor, Public Relations and Communications Graduate Program,
Georgetown University, and
CEO, EnviroComm International