During the worst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward thought it would be a good idea to place the awful spill into a larger context.
Sure, the spill was bad—but was it really that bad? Hayward didn’t seem to think so, saying:
“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”
Hayward may have been technically right. But the fact that he sought to downplay the horrific effects of the worst marine oil spill in history was rightly criticized and widely mocked.
Many companies, nonprofits, and government agencies occasionally encounter similar situations—no, not oil spills, but moments when they think it might be a good idea to place a specific fact into a larger context. For example:
A hospital spokesperson might be tempted to say: “This woman’s death was extremely unusual. We’ve performed more than 14,000 of these types of surgeries, and this is the first time a patient ever died from it.”
A spokesperson from a government agency might be tempted to say: “Although there was massive fraud involved in this case, we’d like to point out that every other project we’ve completed this year has come in under budget.”
A spokesperson from a trucking company might be tempted to say: “This is the first time in our 42-year history that one of our drivers has ever caused a death while intoxicated. We have had 8,200 drivers in that time, almost all of whom have done their jobs responsibly.
But those statements all sound defensive. And there’s one thing missing from all of them: An acknowledgement that even one massive oil spill, case of fraud, or death, is one too many. See how different the above statements read simply by adding that sentiment. As an example:
“We’ve performed more than 14,000 of these types of surgeries, and this is the first time a patient ever died from it. But that gives none of even the slightest bit of comfort. One death is one too many—and we are going to do everything possible to prevent this from ever happening again.”
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