On the Gulf of Mexico’s shores in May 2010, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward found himself in a precarious position. This was a defining moment for both his career and the company’s global standing. Just a month earlier, the Deepwater Horizon platform had exploded, claiming eleven lives and triggering a devastating oil spill with far-reaching environmental and economic consequences. Hayward was still grappling with the aftermath.

Previous interviews had not gone well, and the public felt he was trying to downplay the massive impact of nearly one million gallons of oil leaking into the Gulf daily when he told The Guardian, “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

Hayward was tired, overwhelmed, and notoriously shy about talking with the media. But today, he was delivering a long-overdue apology, and it needed to go well.

“We’re sorry for the massive disruption [the oil spill] has caused their lives,” Hayward told the reporters.

He should have stopped there, but he went on.

“There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

From that point on, Hayward’s career would forever be linked to the phrase, “I would like my life back.”

Hayward’s infamous remark is a stark reminder of the importance of empathy and careful communication during a crisis. For CEOs, crises often become ‘make-or-break’ moments in their careers. When fumbled, the public will not forgive or forget. However, if delivered promptly with authenticity and compassion, CEO statements can win over customers and other stakeholders.

Consider the various responses to power disruptions caused by Winter Storm Elliott in 2022. As customers demanded energy providers answer for power grid failures, few CEOs achieved the successful combination of contrition and explanation in their statements. Duke Energy issued one of the more effective statements in response to the impact of the storms:

“I want to express how sorry we are for what our customers experienced,” said Julie Janson, Duke Energy Carolina’s executive vice president and CEO. “Winter Storm Elliott was an extremely powerful event with a unique confluence of high winds, extreme temperature drops, and other conditions that forced us to curtail power as a last resort. We regret not being able to provide customers as advance notice of the outages as we would have liked, and we acknowledge that the outages lasted far longer than we expected.”

The contrast between Hayward’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Duke Energy’s more effective communication in the aftermath of Winter Storm Elliott highlights how crucial it is for leaders to deliver well-crafted, heartfelt messages. Companies that manage to strike this balance can not only mitigate the immediate fallout but also rebuild trust with their stakeholders over time.

At the same time, CEOs must navigate the delicate balance between transparency and legal prudence. As lawsuits abound, energy providers face the complex challenge of delivering messages that convey authenticity and empathy with affected communities without accepting responsibility. This is often where communications teams come into conflict with legal teams.

As communicators, we know that when a company is at fault, the public wants a sincere apology and transparency about how it plans to address the situation and correct future actions. Alternatively, legal teams must protect the company from civil and sometimes criminal consequences, resulting in the company not saying anything at all or issuing an unsympathetic, generic statement.

The 2020 Zogg Wildfire is a prime example of why an energy provider may be swayed by its legal team to withhold a statement. The wildfire killed four people in California and resulted in Shasta County filing 11 criminal felony and misdemeanor charges against PG&E, including manslaughter and recklessly starting a fire. While those charges were dropped in 2023, it still cost PG&E $45 million in rebuilding efforts and a $5 million civil penalty, not to mention a potential fine of $155 million from the California Public Utilities Commission and other potential claimants.

With so much at stake, creating a statement or a crisis plan without professional consultation is not advisable. Mercom regularly works with clients to develop effective crisis statements. More importantly, we work with companies to implement a crisis plan before they experience a crisis. Contact us at media@mercomcapital.com to make sure you and your teams know what to do and what to say when facing potential crises.