Categories: Crisis management / Energy issues / Political spin

13 July 2010

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Mrs Obama puts BP’s oil spill in perspective

Imagine the outrage if gaffe-prone BP chief Tony Hayward had said yesterday that the Gulf Coast places were “as vibrant and just as beautiful as they’ve always been”. Well, that’s what First Lady Michelle Obama did say yesterday.

She was out and about in Florida. She was there sending out reassuring PR messages to tourists. She told them not to abandon the Gulf Coast, in other words not to believe all the environmental catastrophe talk they’d been hearing on the news. She reminded the world that:

“There are still thousands of miles of beaches not touched by the spill. There are still opportunities to experience these beautiful beaches,”

She added:

“… folks here in Florida and across the Gulf Coast are still depending on visitors and tourist dollars to put food on their tables and to pay their mortgages and to send their kids to college.

Talking of paying bills. A local restaurant owner by the name of Patronis told the First Lady that oysters were off the seafood menu, not because they weren’t available but because “all the oystermen are working for BP,” leaving few men to scrape the oysters from nearby Apalachicola Bay.

Thank God for Mrs Obama and for the local tourist lobby who briefed her well. Her words couldn’t have been better timed, coming as they did as BP finally – we hope – plugged its deep-sea leaking oil pipe. If all goes well, by August the relief oil wells will have sealed the leak permanently. I predict that we will all be shocked by just how quickly the environment and BP’s reputation recovers.

Of course, my message, and I’m sure Mrs Obama’s message likewise, is not that environmental harm has not been done. The message is simply to keep it all in perspective.

This little incident highlights the power of competing PR agendas. There’s been a lot invested by environmentalists and politicians – not least Mrs Obama’s husband – in traducing BP over this spill. But the criticism was hyped and bordered on scaremongering. That had consequences far beyond BP.

Actually, early on in this crisis, President Obama also found himself stressing how lovely and open most of the Gulf beaches were. His remarks then, even more than Mrs Obama’s now, remind us that catastrophism is a very dangerous weapon. Being doomy is great when you’re trying to deflect blame and raise the stakes, but it’s less good when real hoteliers, for instance, get side-swiped as collateral damage.

The trouble is that it is hundreds of times easier to spread ideas, impressions and images of damage – and make them seem widespread, severe and permanent – than it is to remind people of a nuanced picture. This is an important effect of the media, which is much more the politician’s tool than reality is. The media can make one oiled pelican stand for all nature and for every pelican. Reporters can easily go to the most damaged spot and make it stand for the generality of damage, and make damage seem general.

Anyway, after a few months of uncertainty, noise and safe exaggeration, perhaps Mrs Obama’s remarks will see the beginning of a subtler picture. Of course, we have yet to see what the real damage of the spill is. We’ll know much better about a year from now.  Let’s hope Louisiana has thriving seaside and wildlife tourism between now and then and long after.

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One Response to “Mrs Obama puts BP’s oil spill in perspective”

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