At the Senate hearing into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill BP, Transocean and Halliburton disputed each other’s account of what caused the accident. It was a messy affair. But in it I glimpsed the makings of a much-needed corrective PR campaign.
As the three companies faced their interrogators, behind sat protesters wearing T-shirts embossed “Energy shouldn’t cost lives”. When the proceedings closed the protesters screamed at the BP spokesman, “Hey, Hey, Lamar MacKay, how many fish did you kill today?” They chanted “Boycott BP”. They seemed to have friends in the Senate. Bob Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey said:
“We were told that the Titanic was so technologically advanced that it couldn’t sink, and we were told that this well was so technologically advanced that it couldn’t spill. Unfortunately both of these technological marvels ended in tragedy.”
Actually, nobody ever said that either accident couldn’t happen. Though the makers of the Titanic and BP both at some point understated the potential risk involved in their respective challenges. That’s all the more reason, I believe, for BP to use this latest incident to set the record straight with the public about the realities of its business.
But right now the White House has vowed to “keep a boot to the throat” of BP. That’s an understandable response while the oil flows unchecked from the seabed. That does not mean that either PRs or BP should see it that way.
However, PR dogma suggests that BP should bite its tongue. The PR rulebook, designed to maintain a licence to operate, opines that if people think BP’s the villain it should act like one. Larry Smith of the Institute for Crisis Management and Timothy Coombs of Eastern Illinois University advocated this viewpoint to Slate:
[It’s] literally true: BP owns the oil but not the rig. But it’s a shoddy communications strategy, says Smith. Wherever the fault lies, BP shouldn’t be splitting hairs. Companies should take the fall and work out recriminations behind closed doors, says Coombs. For example, when the chain Taco Johns had an E. coli outbreak, it didn’t publicly blame the lettuce supplier. It took responsibility. And, of course, sued the lettuce supplier later.
Effectively, Coombs is arguing that BP should adopt a cynical strategy in which it says one thing in private and another in public. His logic – and that of most PRs – is that the truth is too nuanced and complex for the public to comprehend. The argument goes that perception is everything. As the WSJ explained, they’ve got a point:
When you consider that analysts’ worst case scenarios put the eventual cost to BP at around $8 billion, yet $30 billion has been wiped off the company’s market capitalization since the crisis began, it becomes clear that this reputational damage has a value.
The problem is that by accepting full responsibility for the accident, BP would promote itself (dishonestly) as incompetent. How would that help maintain its credibility and reputation? Hence, I much prefer BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s strategy of accepting full responsibility for cleaning up the mess caused by its oil, while quietly but firmly disputing that it caused or was responsible for the accident. But Malcolm Gooderham, MD, TLG Communications, dubbed Hayward’s approach a “Miss” in PR Week. He also contrasted Hayward’s stance to that of his predecessor, Lord Browne:
“The virtue of Browne’s tenure was that despite the disasters, he is revered because of his strategic achievements. The challenge for BP today is to define a new thought leadership agenda.”
Browne’s thought leadership led him to re-brand British Petroleum as Beyond Petroleum. It was deceptive positioning and slightly bonkers to boot. To his credit, when Hayward took control of BP, he quietly downgraded the tag-line’s prominence. It now merely serves as “shorthand for what we do”, which is petroleum, and it hardly features at all in BP’s PR. What’s more, the irony of BP’s current plight is that it follows Mr Hayward’s determination to re-oritentate itself on technological competence rather than geo-political flair.
So what’s my advice to BP today?
- BP should concentrate on proving itself committed and competent as it cleans up the mess and reconsiders safety strategies
- BP has to speak with one voice in public and in private, now and in the future
- BP should use this crisis to educate the media, public and political elite about the realities of complex accountability
- BP should seek to lay the blame wherever the facts take them, even if some more of it falls on them
- BP should remind the world that energy is bottled force; BP is as good as any in handling the hazards involved in fueling our world
- BP should state the Browne years of Texas and Alaska lapses are behind them and what happened in the Gulf of Mexico was not caused by the same internal flaws
- BP needs to stress that the oil that’s now being drilled is located in inhospitable conditions and has inescapable risks
- BP should repeat and repeat that whatever lessons can be learned will be learned and that no stone will be left unturned in discovering them.