Taking responsibility is not the same as accepting blame

Corporate lawyers and public relations practitioners often find themselves at odds, especially when the company they work ends up in the middle of a crisis. Lawyers want to make sure that if lawsuits follow, the company has done nothing to compromise its defense in court. In fact, PR staffs are sensitive to this concern as well; we have the long-term well-being of our employers and clients at heart, so crisis media training stresses such principles as:

  • Don’t speculate on what caused the crisis (spill, leak, explosion, plane crash, etc.).
  • Don’t give estimates on damage caused.
  • Release only information you are sure about.

The two disciplines sometimes part ways, however, on the issue of what actions the company should take to respond to the crisis. Some lawyers fear that even lending a helping hand, or setting up relief funds, or contributing to nonprofit organizations willing to help is admitting fault. Their counsel then becomes “do nothing,” which frankly is the wrong advice. The last thing a company needs when it’s in or near a crisis is to be seen as heartless, cold and caring about nothing more than whether it will be able to save its own skin in court.

During the recent Gulf oil crisis, BP seemed at times to understand this. Despite its many PR gaffes, it took action to help clean the burgeoning spill and provide some relief to affected residents. Still, it seemed incapable of avoiding the blame game, trying to pull TransOcean and Halliburton down even as it was doing a lot of good things. Then, when it released its report about what caused the accident, it once again went out of its way to point fingers at those companies.

How should BP have conducted itself? Quite simply, it should have said, “It’s not really possible right now to determine how blame should be assessed for this situation, other than to say we’ll own up to our portion as we learn what that is. For the moment, though, we’re going to take responsibility for making this right – environmentally, socially and economically – for the people who have been affected.” Then it should have kept saying it and kept acting on it.

That kind of response would have presented one clear, responsible stance to the world. Instead, we had a company that veered between looking responsible and looking to avoid being the only fall guy in the game.

What do you think? Does a company look as though it’s admitting guilt if it steps up to be responsible in a crisis? Or does it have a better story to tell if and when others try to pin the blame on it?

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