Connected Leadership: bp's Bernard Looney | Brunswick

Connected Leadership: bp's Bernard Looney

He uses social media to great effect to engage not only employees and supporters, but also critics and skeptics.

A few weeks before he became bp’s CEO in February, Bernard Looney made his first post on Instagram. His caption told who he was and why he had joined social media: “I want to use Instagram not just as a platform to talk but also to listen and understand your thoughts, concerns and interests. I encourage you all to be candid – I consider honest and open discussion crucial. It’s what I care about and what I hope I can promote here.”

Social media is caricatured as either an echo chamber or a shouting contest, yet Looney grasped that certain social platforms could, in fact, foster the opposite outcomes: Help him understand how his company was seen by the outside world, while allowing him to respectfully engage with skeptics and critics.

And it’s here—key word engage—where Looney excels in his use of social platforms. Whether in likes or comments, Looney engages with a frequency not often seen among CEOs. That in itself kickstarts a virtuous cycle: People are more likely to speak up when it’s clear you’re actually listening.

Crucially, Looney’s engagements aren’t just thank you’s in response to a kind word. On a short video update summarizing bp’s Q3 results, for example, one commenter asked about bp’s efforts on biodiversity. Looney responded: “appreciate your push on this - and let me assure you this has not been forgotten.” He then linked to a post he’d made earlier in the year on the subject.

On a separate post, a commenter told Looney to “get real already.” Looney responded: “I understand we’re not on the same page – but I appreciate the challenge and alternative view nonetheless. To change our company we’ve had to set out a detailed and distinctive strategy. Things cannot change overnight, especially when we’re 111 years old. So we make no apologies for laying out our vision.”

These responses may not change minds (a tall order for any post in isolation), but they help people feel heard—while also allowing Looney to share his side of the story. A release or an announcement, at best, only achieve the latter. Crucially, in almost every instance where Looney engages with a critic, their tone becomes friendlier. For example, after Looney responded to one commenter who’d called his message “lame,” that same critic thanked Looney for responding personally, apologized for the “testy post,” and outlined the opportunities they saw for bp.

Authenticity is a hallmark of effective leaders on social media.

Craig Mullaney Partner

Looney’s example shatters another social media stereotype: That it’s not a place for “serious” content. Looney has used social platforms to discuss mental health issues, deliver quarterly updates, and outline how the company is navigating COVID-19.

Less than a month after his inaugural Instagram post, for instance, Looney made a huge announcement: bp would become a net-zero emitter by 2050, fundamentally reshaping not only the company’s strategy but also its core identity—pivoting from an international oil company to an integrated energy company. The move, which Looney discussed on both LinkedIn and Instagram, was widely applauded, yet there were questions about how the move would create financial value, and doubts about bp’s sincerity in seeing it through. As these surfaced, Looney responded to them directly.

Authenticity is a hallmark of effective leaders on social media, and here too Looney thrives. It comes across in how he writes—simply and directly—and where he writes: Going beyond orchestrated articles and posts and into the comments section (common to users like us, but uncommon for CEOs). This authenticity is further reinforced when Looney discloses on LinkedIn that he gets “help running this from colleagues at bp, and even then can’t reply to everything. But I personally read and reply to as much as I can.”

Looney’s use of social platforms has drawn headlines from the BBC to the FT, yet a better metric of success than headlines generated are conversations started. On one of his earliest LinkedIn posts, for example, Looney responded to multiple comments—which, in turn, generated responses where those same commenters thanked him. These aren’t momentous, but they do accumulate over weeks and months—the pace at which trust is often built—and speak powerfully about his leadership style. They also serve as little reminders that communication, at its most powerful, is two-way.

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Craig Mullaney is a Brunswick Partner, based in Washington, DC. Mr. Mullaney is an experienced advisor and a New York Times best-selling author. His Connected Leadership column spotlights how modern executives use digital and social media to communicate and lead organizations.