Svanberg’s ”small people” in Deepwater Horizon Crisis – my fault?

It was December 2007, around this time of the year.

Sunny and warm during daytime. I was sitting outside in a T-shirt. The scent of rosemary bushes on the porch and jasmine climbing the house facade filled the air.

Suddenly, I received a message on my mobile there in Antibes, France, where K and I had had our summer house for the past five years.

”Take a flight to Stockholm as soon as you can,” the message urged, providing an address that seemed to be for some kind of estate. A conference center, maybe…

Surely something important, I thought, as the message came from Henry Sténson at Ericsson – one of the clients I had highly regarded over the years.

He was secretive and wouldn’t reveal the purpose. ”You’ll find out when you get here,” he wrote.

We had been working together for a long time, since October 16 in a crisis management situation.. On that day, Ericsson unexpectedly issued a profit warning. The stock plummeted by as much as 30%, finally settling at minus 23.8% – the sharpest decline since April 2004. The freefall continued with record lows well into November.

This led to persistent and escalating media criticism of Ericsson’s CEO, Carl-Henric Svanberg, and Communications Director Henry Sténson.

”Heads will roll,” read the headlines. Renowned journalists, along with several analysts, demanded Svanberg’s resignation. Intensive efforts were made to get Chairman Michael Treschow to express criticism. If successful, Svanberg’s position could have become untenable.

But within Ericsson, the leadership was confident that profits would rebound. Large investments and low billing rates were considered the cause of a more temporary dip.

The challenge was to weather the storm while being very vigilant about external reactions. Sténson used Mattias Ronge’s and my former agency, Ronge Kommunikation, to meticulously analyze media coverage day by day, while the same scrutiny took place from his own team. This way, he gained a very comprehensive perspective ”in stereo” and eliminated the risk of ”bunker mentality.” It was a new and creative approach for me.

Our review, led by Mattias, was tough and unvarnished. Here’s an initial report:

”Several journalists/columnists speculated that Carl-Henric Svanberg and Henry Sténson would be forced to resign. Ericsson’s information delivery was criticized from various angles.

Initially, journalists questioned how Ericsson’s internal information procedures could be so inadequate regarding additional sales to existing customers.

In step two, Ericsson was criticized for lying, claiming they had informed the market late and the board early.

Ericsson also went public in DN, expressing a desire for reduced information frequency, which stirred some criticism, including from Carina Lundberg Markow and Mats Qviberg.

Likely, in journalists’ and analysts’ perception of Ericsson’s information delivery, one could also discern a historical anger based on predecessors’ information efforts. When Ericsson falters in information, old memories are simply resurrected.”

It wasn’t straightforward to quickly get back to Sweden. We usually flew between Arlanda and Nice Terminal One with Norwegian. Now, because quick action was required, I needed to take Air France via Terminal Two and change in Paris.

During the flight, I had time to contemplate and become increasingly curious. Had Sténson gathered a crisis team at the training facility that I needed to coordinate with? What was expected of me, exactly?

Upon arriving at Arlanda, I gave the address to the taxi driver. He started driving but became more and more uncertain. Finally, he pulled over and called Taxi Stockholm’s switchboard. ”They can’t find the address,” he said. ”Strange, they usually always know…”

I called Henry. ”Okay,” he sighed. ”I’ll be a little late. Which road are you on?”

I told him. ”Okay, then the driver should continue until that road ends. There’s a high gate. That’s where he should drop you off. Eventually, you’ll be let in.”

It was probably close to 9 PM, and it had gotten dark. But everything matched. I paid and got off at the heavy gate. Stood there, shivering in the cold. After a while, a young man appeared.

”Hi, I’ve been at the gym. I think you’re here to meet my dad. He’s not here yet. But I’ll let you in.”

I was allowed in, and the son disappeared up a staircase with his gym bag. I found myself in a large living room, very bright and nicely furnished. On the sofa and chairs, several gnomes were placed. Through panoramic windows, I could see directly out to the water, and a large pier was barely visible.

I’m not good at environmental descriptions, and in this situation, my head was burning with questions. Then Henry Sténson called: ”We’ll be there in a moment. You’ll talk to Carl-Henric and tell him as much as you can about media logic and what it means for the situation we’ve ended up in. And answer any questions he might have.”

My contacts with Henry had been intense for a long time, but this was the first time I was alone with Carl-Henric Svanberg. After a while, Henry came back, and we continued together.

It was very much about how to act in the Goliath role. Almost all journalistic storytelling in crisis situations means defining villains and perpetrators, victims and heroes, and experts who can explain why things turned out the way they did.

You should try to ”swing on the ropes,” listen to criticism, and embrace what’s right in it. Not get upset and show anger whatever happens.

You mustn’t take the Goliath role personally but realize that you are a commodity in the media industry. Like timber coming into a paper mill that can come out as beautiful handwriting paper or as toilet paper.

”Journalists always want to be on the side of the little person, the voice of the ”small people” against authority,” I said.

The first thing that strikes me about the duo Carl-Henric and Henry is their professionalism. The second is humility.

Carl-Henric had a metaphor, if I recall correctly, that in a crisis, he sits in the barber’s chair and lets the information professionals work. When he makes a decision, he has the best possible foundation. Imagine if more people did that, how much pain and unnecessary embarrassment could be avoided!

Christmas stories are supposed to end happily, and this one does. Carl-Henric Svanberg survived this crisis and later left under orderly circumstances. In 2010, he got the top job as BP’s chairman – the fourth-largest company in the world. There, he had a few days  of peace before the worst environmental disaster in modern times occurred: when the oil rig Deepwater Horizon collapsed in the Gulf of Mexico. Month after month, the oil incessantly flowed out. The crisis affected wildlife, tourism, businesses, everything. He survived that too and reached an agreement directly with then-President Barack Obama, which amounted to a staggering SEK 158 billion in 2015.

After negotiating in the White House, he came out and told the assembled press:

”We care about the small people.” Listen to it in Swedish (if you understand the language ): ”Vi bryr oss om den lilla människan.” Nothing someone would be lynched or ”canceled” for, right? A direct translation but not optimal in the USA, where it sounds a bit patronizing. There, they prefer to say ”the average person.” Better to be an underdog than a victim.

But in Sweden, journalists believed that Svanberg, who had had English as a working language for decades and who lived in London had language problems. So maybe everything was my fault, because of my reasoning about Goliath and David and ”the small people” there in the house in Sigtuna.

But Svanberg apologized (though I didn’t think he needed to), and the indignation quickly subsided. Perhaps that’s the twist in this story – media is media and shouldn’t be taken so darn seriously.

Paul Ronge


This is an exception; I rarely take examples from real crisis management. So, I of course, asked Henry Sténson for permission.

Here’s how he responded via text:

”I’m happy about that. However, I would never think to have opinions on a text you plan to write. Write what you think. In addition, I can possibly express that it often comes down to how two people fit together and accept each other. I can say that the many years I had with CHS have been fantastic. I got the opportunity to develop a world leader. Not many get that. Beyond that, I got a friend for life.”

Om Svanberg, Obama och besserwissers

Ett otroligt givande arbetsår fick för min del sin final den 1-2 juni då jag var moderator för konferensen ”Bakom Rubrikerna – Strategisk Krishantering i Verkligheten” i DN-huset i Stockholm.

Expressens chefredaktör Thomas Mattsson beskriver livfullt seminariet i sin blogg.

Talarna på seminariet tillhörde alla de mest erfarna krishanterarna i Sverige:

Anders Jörle, Carl Bilds presschef på Utrikesdepartementet, som varit med i alla större katastrofhanteringar de senaste 30 åren kom med för dagen färsk och unik information från krisen kring Gazabåtarna och fängslade svenskar i Israel.

Andreas Koch, informationschef på Carnegie, berättade mycket öppenhjärtigt om alla fel och tillkortakommanden som ledde till att Carnegie under dramatiska former förstatligades. Det var en händelse som såg ut som en tanke att den stora HQ-krisen – samma krisförlopp som för Carnegie men värre – just de här dagarna var under uppsegling.

Ulrika Årehed Kågström, ny Generalsekreterare för Röda Korset, svarade på alla frågor om hur välgörenhetsorganisationen kunnat luras på sju miljoner kronor av Johan af Donner och hon gjorde det mitt i pågående kris – af Donner hade just då aviserat att han skulle överklaga sin fängelsedom på fem år.

Henrik Olinder från MSB (Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap), Ingrid Thörnqvist från SVT, Kalle Karlsson, kommunikationschef för Svensk Energi och Jan Lindqvist, informationschef på Arlanda, var ytterligare namn i raden som bidrog till att ge deltagarna nya ingångar i ämnet krishantering.

En av de talare som fick högst betyg och som alla egentligen ville höra mer av var Ericssons informationsdirektör Henry Sténson.

För några år sedan störtdök Ericssons aktie och plötsligt ville delar av affärsmedia, med E24 och dess krönikörer Andreas Cervenca och Torbjörn Isacson i spetsen, se huvuden rulla eller ännu bättre serveras på fat.

E24 utlyste en nätomröstning om vem som skulle få sparken först: Ericssons ordförande Michael Treschow, dess dåvarande VD Carl-Henric Svanberg eller Henry Sténson.

Ericsson lyckades jobba sig igenom krisen, aktiekursen vände uppåt och media fick inte sina skalper. Möjligtvis kan detta ligga Carl-Henric Svanberg i fatet idag.

Mitt i sin redogörelse berättade Henry Sténson plötsligt att jag hade anlitats som den utomstående krishanterare som skulle analysera skeendet, lägga utifrånperspektiv och ge råd i kriskommunikationen parallellt med att samma sak skedde ”inhouse” under Ericssons kris. Förutom jag själv engagerades också en expert utifrån investerarperspektivet.

Sténsons förklaring var: ”Alla får ett tunnelseende. Ingen kan se objektivt på sitt eget agerande under en kris”.

Jag blev häpen, glad och stolt över att ha ”outats” på det här viset. Regeln är ju att jag (liksom alla seriösa konsulter) vägrar prata om vad jag gör för kunder, däremot får de gärna prata om mig och vad jag gör.

Detta gör att det finns ett ”jäv” om jag skulle uttala mig konkret om BP och krisen i Mexikanska Golfen. Utifrån mina erfarenheter och mitt sätt att se det är ju Svanberg en av de mest kompetenta och internationellt meriterade företagsledare Sverige har haft. Ingen annan svensk företagsledare har tillbringat 25 minuter ensam med USA:s president i Ovala rummet i diskussion om kris och katastrof-hantering på den högsta tänkbara nivån. Dessutom med resultatet att Barack Obama sedan kommer ut och säger att han tror på Svanberg och att ”vi har alla ett intresse av att BP förblir ett starkt företag”.

I mitt stilla sinne tänker jag: Viktigast är väl ändå att USA:s president förstår vad Svanberg menar och tror på att bolaget tänker göra rätt för sig, även om svenska språkpoliser, besserwissers och amerikanska pratshow-värdar sedan fick en högtidsstund med språkfadäsen ”small people”.

Den röda tråden i seminariet jag beskrivit ovan var ödmjukhet. Ju mer garvade krishanterare som talade, desto mer inskärpte de hur komplicerat det är när krisen pågår, att man oundgängligt kommer att göra fel, att det hela tiden måste finnas slavar på triumfvagnen som kan tala om när kejsaren är naken.

Här kommer en ”disclaimer”: Jag pratar ständigt om ”småfolket” och om ”den lilla människan” på mina medieträningar och i min medierådgivning till kunder. I det svenska perspektivet är den lilla människan någon vi respekterar och vars rätt vi värnar.

I USA vill man vara uppstickare, utmanare, underdog – men inte ”liten” och ”ett offer”. Därför blir en översättning av ”småfolket” fel.

Skillnaden ligger i kulturellt synsätt, inte i antalet engelsk-lektioner.

Jag kunde ha gjort Svanbergs språkfadäs sju dagar i veckan med min svenska kulturella bakgrund och säkert gäller det också de besserwissers som flabbat mest.

I kvällstidningar och vissa andra medier står ”experter” på rad och berättar tvärsäkert och behändigt om alla fel och all ”usel krishantering” BP ägnat sig åt. Mest har det handlat om hur man pratar eller inte pratar med media mitt under en pågående oljekatastrof.

Jag tycker nog ändå att den diskussionen med fördel kan vänta tills läckan är tätad och en plan är satt för att komma till rätta med katastrofens följder.

/Paul Ronge