Admitting You Screwed Up

By Noah Graff

A BP cleanup crew removes oil from a beach at Port Fourchon, Louisiana. (Getty Images)

A BP cleanup crew removes oil from a beach at Port Fourchon, Louisiana. (Getty Images)

When is it best to take responsibility for a screw-up, even when you think it’s not entirely your fault?

Recently NPR’s “Morning Edition” interviewed Patrick Kinney of Gaffney Bennet Public Relations to get his thoughts on BP’s current public response to the Gulf oil spill. Kinney had worked for Ogilvy Public Relations, which helped BP rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum” 10 years ago.

At the beginning of the oil spill crisis BP’s PR team elected to deny responsibility for the disaster. However, later the company flip-flopped and admitted it was at fault. Kinney attributes BP’s first response to its lawyers who were in the “hide from liability” mindset. Whether the company is entirely responsible for the crisis or only partially, it realized that it was best to take responsibility for the mess, because the world wouldn’t rest until someone took the heat. Denying responsibility would only make the public’s resentment for the “evil, polluting, greedy oil company” escalate even more.

Another method the company is trying in order to defuse the public’s resentment is keeping people up to date on the status of the crisis using Twitter, Facebook and video updates on its Web site. Kinney says that along with using these information outlets, it’s important for BP to tell the public about the questions it doesn’t have the answers for and tell people why that is.

Of course there is the distinct possibility that BP is attempting to make the public think it is being transparent when in actuality it’s all big façade so the company can discreetly withhold the really dirty stuff. I wouldn’t put that tactic past them.

Kinney says that that BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, will likely lose his job from the crisis. He’s a convenient scapegoat and his own public response that, “the amount of oil spewing is tiny in comparison to the amount of water in the Gulf,” is not what BP needs coming from the face of the company. Kinney says that in crises such as this one, 11 out 12 CEOs lose their jobs.

Question: Have you ever taken responsibility for a screw up that wasn’t totally your fault?

Click here To listen to the NPR Story

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5 thoughts on “Admitting You Screwed Up

  1. Dan Vespa

    If you take responsibility, it is always entirely your fault. There is no half way about. It is like us sending out of spec parts to our customer and the reason for it was the plating was too thick. OK, on first glance it looks like it is not our fault, but we chose the plater, not the customer so ultimately it is our fault. Remember, the first rule of leadership……..everything is your fault!

  2. J Friedman

    The buck stops here. Whatever the people in my company do, absent personal behavior that exceeds their authority, I am ultimately responsible for. That is the honorable and right thing to do. In the passive sense, it means that I take the blame for things my company/staff screwed up. In the active sense it means that I take proactive steps to identify and minimize screw ups.

    Certainly the job gets tougher as the size of the business grows. In the case of BP, it is not just the Chairman who is responsible, it is the stockholders who elected him. They made the choice to forgo installing a $500k device that would have prevented this. From the perspective of hindsight,
    1) the omission of that device will never happen again,
    2) other rigs use in the U.S. should be stopped until the device is installed on them,
    3) Congress can turn its attention from the use of steroids in baseball and fighting for the sake of fighting to address important issues like this.

    I have taken the blame for mistakes made by my company and my family. It has never been a happy task, but it is part of the job description.


  3. Jack Frost

    Often and most often in combat. Then you not only have to admit the screw up but you have to write the survivors about it. As a commander in combat the buck stops there. Your troops become a part of you and you develop the ability to recognize the pain of a malfunctioning extremity. When you fail to heed it you and the rest of your team get to feel the consequences. In the case of BP, I doubt seriously that they even had a command presence on the platform. I don’t think they owned it. But in this time of the litigious culture no one will own up to being in charge and expose themselves to the lottery awards as punitive action against recurrence.

  4. Buelldog

    I think the previous comments have some good insights into the question of accepting responsibility, so I will make a comment regarding CEO’s losing their jobs. In a situation such as this one, everyone will be left holding the bag, except the CEO. My guess is that yes, the CEO will lose his job and will likely take a VERY large severence package with him. He will be blamed for this fiasco, but he will be gone. The companies involved, plus the government, plus many volunteers will be left with the responsibility to cleanup the mess.
    I am generally in favor of drilling for oil, but when I find out that the people in the know probably could have prevented this by installing an inexpensive device but didn’t, I begin to wonder if they really are as evil as the tree-huggers would have us believe.

  5. Noah Graff

    Yeah Buelldog–Affirmative. Sounds like he’s either really stupid, rotten, or both.


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