Why does the legal fight between BP and Halliburton remind me of Kramer vs. Kramer ?

During the child custody hearing in the prize-winning 1979 movie, the divorcing Kramers (husband played by Dustin Hoffman; wife, by Meryl Streep) are in the court room. Representing their respective clients, their lawyers unleash brutal character assassinations.

Dustin and Meryl are appalled, but what can they do? They glance at each other and silently cringe.

A problem for corporate communicators—watching from inside or outside these two oil-spill-crisis-aftermath parties—is the painful realization that the foundation for the BP-Halliburton complaint in Texas State Court is largely about communication.

“Information”–the lack of it, concealment of it, the critical nature of it—is the theme of the narrative. The word appears half a dozen times in a 10-paragraph Wall Street Journal story Halliburton: BP Hid Gulf Disaster Details.

Companies certainly disagree, compete and invite value comparison with each other’s performance, products or value-based deals. But so long as the communication is executive approved and executed by competent communicators, it doesn’t descend to character assassination.

Courtroom lawyers, engaged to win and thus protect company stakeholder interests, take over from corporate stewards of truth and fair play to advance ad hominem arguments to tarnish a contender’s reputation.

And when defamation overtakes the flow of information, communicators have a significant problem. The very things that CEOs and CCOs avoid–exaggeration, misleading half-truths, manipulation of facts—the lawyers in court find acceptable and useful.

What’s a stakeholder to perceive when the dust-up settles?

In the movie, after their sour trial, the Kramers end sweetly. Meryl Streep tells Dustin Hoffman he’s a great dad and despite the court’s ruling, he can keep their son. As she departs, Dustin tells her she looks terrific.

But that’s a movie. (What, you expected one of these stars to end up a louse and a loser?)

The analogy is not perfect, but out here where we live and do business, corporate communicators must deal with the cringe factor as they watch two successful, decent companies with longtime stakeholders, characterized by their respective lawyers as nasty and irresponsible, tramplers of transparency, unworthy of trust—while stakeholders shape public opinion.

Corporate communicators respect the process of justice and rights, plan the routes to repair the damage of courtroom defaming, and confront the question that overhangs our practice:

When the issue is information and performance, and when the lawyers have the power, must responsible communicators be like one of the Kramers, cringing behind “no comment”?

E. Bruce Harrison

Adjunct Professor, Leadership Communication
Georgetown University