It’s been seven weeks since 11 workers were killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. The resulting oil leak continues to pour thousands of barrels a day into the Gulf of Mexico — despite all attempts to stop it — and now surpasses the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Just 10 short years ago, BP, the company that leases the oil rig, successfully rebranded itself as being “green.” As part of the rebranding, British Petroleum shortened its name to BP (which doesn’t sound like a dirty oil company), changed the company’s logo to a green and yellow sunflower pattern (to highlight its interest in alternative and environmentally friendly fuels) and upgraded its filling stations. The company’s advertising campaign encouraged viewers to see BP as moving “beyond petroleum.” Nary an oil rig, oil refinery or oil-drenched pelican in sight.
It’s ironic then, to say the least, to see BP’s multi-million-dollar, award-winning re-branding campaign now drowning in a sea of leaking oil and in the gross mismanagement of basic crisis communications.
Did the company take responsibility for the disaster, provide details of what happened and acknowledge the damage done? Yes … well, sort of. BP explained the cause, but mischaracterized the resulting oil leak as “tiny.” Since then, the company has been caught multiple times attempting to block the free flow of information (a basic tenet of ethical public relations) and obstruct the media’s coverage.
Did it assign the most credible employee — usually the CEO or another top leader — to be its single source of BP information? Yes … well, sort of. The company’s CEO, Tony Hayward, has been its sole spokesperson, but the more he speaks, the less credible he and the company become. A geologist by trade, Hayward simply is not a good communicator.
Did BP explain what it is doing to remedy the crisis? Yes … well, sort of. Many “remedies” have been put forward and none have worked, forcing Hayward into the awkward acknowledgement that his company was not adequately prepared to stop the leak.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Hayward said it was “entirely fair” to criticize BP for not being better equipped to fight the oil leak. “What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your toolkit,” he admitted.
The other important tool missing from Hayward’s toolkit deal is the ability to manage the company’s crisis communications.
The only way for BP to manage the real-time, 24/7 video of oil gushing into the Gulf will be to cork the bleeding pipe. What should be more manageable, however, is putting a cork in the company’s spokesperson.
Hayward’s desire to “get his life back” (a statement for which he later apologized), attempts to minimize the leaking oil’s impact on the environment and the health of cleanup workers, as well as his other public-speaking gaffes, make one wonder if BP’s public relations team isn’t serving him well. Or perhaps he’s not listening, in what would be a grave example of why public relations should have a seat in the “C Suite.”
Instead of letting the information flow as freely as its oil, BP has reined in Hayward and filled the void with an uber-defensive, $50 million advertising campaign outlining all the great things the company is doing to fix the oil leak (or at least try to).
But replacing Hayward’s ineptness, arrogance and insensitivity for the people who live and work on the Gulf with a pricey paid media campaign is not the answer. Who believes those ads? Despite all of its flaws, earned media and, now, social media are where most people go to get credible, believable information.
As a communications effort destined for the “Hall of Shame,” we’ll look back years from now and examine the many mistakes BP made and recall its inability to practice credible, transparent public relations. For better or worse, BP will be the topic of crisis communications case studies and public relations textbooks for years to come.
Congratulations Exxon Valdez; you’ve been supplanted by BP.
Steven Grant, APR, a member of the PRSA Board of Directors, is the senior manager of public relations for the National Education Association and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.