Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.*

A new week brings a new Monday and a fresh installment on reputation communications tools. Since, in this line of work there are no shiny new widgets or silver bullets, this week’s tool is simple common sense.

When I wrote on the topic of tools in the past, I suggested to readers that one of my favorite tools is due diligence and research. I continue to stand by that recommendation, but I want to build on that idea and emphasize the vital importance of applying common sense thinking before communicating.

The most brilliant messaging rooted in thorough research can still fail and critically damage reputation if delivered without consideration of common sense ideals. An easy illustration of this misstep comes to us today courtesy of British Petroleum. I know – they’re an easy target these days, but still an excellent and highly relevant example.

At a recent public meeting with residents on the Gulf Coast, BP CEO Tony Hayward apologized for the environmental catastrophe caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The idea of a CEO offering a heartfelt apology while continuing to lead the company’s crisis response is good strategy and the right thing to do. The apology started well and certainly seemed noble in its intent.

AP Photo

However, common sense seemed to wane as Hayward closed his statement, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”

These words were set against the backdrop of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, a seemingly irresolute approach to halting the leak, and the tragic deaths of 11 oil rig workers. Hayward’s parting words eviscerated what once may have been a thoughtfully crafted and well considered message. In fact, those twelve words touched-off a new storm of criticism and BP reputation bashing. For the record, Mr. Hayward did apologize for the misstep and the crisis three days later.

Devising sound communications strategy to create, protect, or advance reputation is a complex endeavor. It starts with research. It requires clever positioning and supporting messages. You need to identify all relevant audiences and consider all of them at all times. But, even after all elegant strategy work is done, you still need a strong sense of common sense en garde at all times.

BP has enough reputational challenges today without adding more through public statement gaffes. Now, again for the record, I don’t believe for a second that Mr. Hayward intended those particular words at that particular moment. I suspect that he was sincerely attempting to connect with the thousands of people suffering because of the crisis. And I’m certain that his closing sentence was never a part of the draft statement created by his press officer. So I can only assume that he fell victim to a momentary lapse in common sense.

Photo from American Studies at Univ. of Virginia

* A tip of the hat to the Concord Sage, Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for aiding me with titling today’s post.

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2 Responses to Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.*

  1. Sean, I love the title on this post — definitely one I’ll be passing along! Hope all is well at the office, tell everyone I say hello.


  2. seanfindlen says:

    Hi Alison — Many thanks for your kind words. Glad you liked the title. Can’t go wrong with Mr. Emerson.

    All is well here at M&Co. Hope all is good with you.

    Best, Sean

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