Sunday, June 6, 2010

BP Is Not a Well-Oiled Media Machine

Clearly, a good social media policy is not going to solve BP's image problem. The company is responsible for what is already looking like the worst man-made environmental catastrophe in history. 

But where a little humility would make BP at least just a tad more difficult to hate, the company has only added insult to injury. The crap regularly pouring out of CEO Tony Hayward's mouth is almost as toxic as what's coming out of the undersea pipe.

This week's edition of Newsweek online collects Hayward's gaffes, and to say they are impressive would be an understatement. The following is excerpted from the Newsweek site:

On April 29, The New York Times reported that Hayward, apparently exasperated, turned to fellow executives in his London office and asked, “What the hell did we do to deserve this?" (A possible answer might be the company's 760 safety violations over the last three years. ExxonMobil, in contrast, has had just one.) 

On May 14, Hayward attempted to persuade The Guardian that "the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume."

Only a few days later, he told Sky News that "the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest." That might surprise the many scientists who see the spill as a true environmental calamity, the full extent of which remains unclear.

On May 30, Hayward was less bullish and decided to play the sympathy card. He told the Today show that "there’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back." (He has since apologized for those remarks.)

On May 31, he told the world that ecosystem-threatening underwater oil plumes—consisting of droplets of partially dissolved oil suspended in water that many scientists have observed—do not exist. He said simply, "There aren't any plumes."

On June 1, Hayward responded to claims that cleanup workers were being sickened by the fumes from the oil they were exposed to by suggesting another possible, non-oil-spill cause.When nine workers fell ill, according to Yahoo News, he told CNN that "food poisoning is clearly a big issue."

But Hayward is not alone in his manful struggle to spin the news in the face of daunting factual evidence. His colleague Bob Dudley, managing director of BP, told NBC's Meet the Press on May 30 that "I think Tony's doing a fantastic job." To paraphrase President George W. Bush during another poorly managed Gulf Coast disaster: heckuva job, Tony.

I was at Ogilvy when the BPBeyond Petroleum campaign was created. BP wanted to portray itself as a different kind of energy company. A greener one. 

Interestingly, the original ads in the campaign were tempered with the tag line, "It's a start." This line served as a caveat that while the company had its head in the right place, and was open to new ideas, it could only promise so much change in the short term. 

I don't know when or why "It's a start" was dropped. Maybe the company started to believe its own rhetoric. Or maybe it just thought the public was dumb enough to believe it. 

It's perfectly clear now that BP is not beyond petroleum. Nor is it beyond letting its CEO open his mouth with one arrogant statement after another. 

Maybe BP needs to try a "Top Kill" or "Junk Shot" on that leaking orifice.

It would be a start.


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