BP: PR disaster

I was waiting in line to get my daily coffee at my neighborhood Giant Food’s Starbucks.  The barista told the customer in line ahead of me that Giant has a new agreement with Shell Oil – for every so many dollars you spend at Giant, you can get free gas at Shell.  The man laughed and said that in a very short while it won’t be necessary to go to the gas station to buy gas – the only thing that we’ll have to do is go to the Virginia shore (the state where I live) with a pail to get the oil from the British Petroleum (BP) spill.  He then added, rather upset, “I will never buy gas from BP.”  The Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana, where the spill happened, are more than a thousand miles away from Virginia.

It’s not a joke.  BP has had a real public relations disaster with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.  They’re already paying for it, but the final tab could be even higher.  The reaction of my fellow shopper at Giant is a perfect example.

BP earns two billion dollars a month.  During the first three months of 2010, its profits were six billion dollars.  It begs the question, then:  how is it possible that a corporation as powerful and with so many resources could manage so poorly the escalating public relations situation brought about by this ecologic disaster.

This catastrophe will be studied in years to come as what not to do during a crisis.

The US is not North Korea.  In the US it is impossible to cover up the information regarding the accident as well as BP’s response to it.  Sooner or later, the truth will come out.  The Congress is already on the hunt.  And if the truth will ultimately come out, why not be open from the beginning and demonstrate an image of total transparency?  As those of us who live in Washington well know, the story that the press is pursuing is not the spill itself but the possible cover-up by BP.  Something that not only has brought about a public relations nightmare, but possibly criminal charges.

The first lesson learned when dealing with this type of crisis is the paramount importance of transparency and of letting people know what is going on.  Trying to cover things up is the worst thing that can be done.  As I said before, in the end, no matter what, everything will come out in the open and if the company has not been completely transparent and has covered up important information, the public will be left with the worst opinion possible about it.

It took BP 23 days to give the press a 30 second-long video clip of the spewing oil well deep in the Gulf of Mexico.  This, despite the fact that BP had underwater cameras that recorded everything that was going on round-the-clock.  The media criticized them harshly.  BP then demanded that volunteers that would be helping to clean-up the spill sign a document absolving BP of any responsibility from any health-related damages brought about their clean-up work. Let’s see:  first, oil spills on US waters and then the volunteers helping to clean this mess up are prohibited from suing BP for any damages?  The press was up in arms and this led to BP retroactively cancelling the document.   BP’s president vowed to remain in the US until the situation was resolved.  However, according to the British press, and in spite of the seriousness of the matter, he returned to London to attend a business meeting and celebrate his birthday.  His message is clear:  I have other more important things to do than being in the US to personally supervise the clean-up and closing of the oil well.  The press, as was expected, pounded on him.  He also had stated during an interview that the ecological damage from the oil spill would be “modest.”  Nowadays we can see the oil slicked waters off Louisiana’s coast.  The damage can’t be determined yet, but at least for those living and suffering its effects on a daily basis do not deem it to be “modest.”  As I write this article, experts estimate that six million gallons of oil have already been spilled in the Gulf.  Initially, BP stated that five thousand barrels of oil were being spilled every day, but did not allow any verification of this number by independent scientists.  Now, many scientists state that the amount of oil spilled is much larger than BP’s estimates.  Some reporters have stated that BP did not give them access to the video of oil spilling from the well so that independent experts couldn’t refute BP’s statements regarding the five thousand daily barrels.

The US government hasn’t done a very good job either.  This isn’t just BP’s problem; it’s a national problem.  Many can’t understand why the government hasn’t been more proactive in the process to stop the flow of oil, instead of letting BP take the lead.  This crisis could also prove to be very costly for the Obama Administration.

We all know that accidents are inevitable.  The airline industry, for example, trains constantly about how to deal with the crisis that will be brought about when one of its airplanes, unfortunately, is involved in an accident.  This might never happen, but an airline has to assume that, sooner or later, some type of accident will take place.  These companies are ready for these crises because it is a given to do so.  One of the basic principles of these crises, among many others, is the vital need for transparency about what has happened.  There are human lives at stake, as was the case with BP.  Eleven workers died during the explosion on the oil platform.  Nothing can be hidden.  This situation is even worse because of the ecological damage brought about by the oil spill.  It is important to be proactive and say what is happening before the press does it for you.

Oil companies also know that accidents are inevitable in their line of work.  What happened to BP?  Did they not remember what happened after the Exxon Valdez accident?  Didn’t they get trained to deal with a crisis?  Did they not get trained to deal with the media in case of a crisis?  And if they did, how is it possible that their behavior has been so terrible?  For many companies, whether or not they have received crisis communication training, the first and natural reaction is to not share information.  However, the only thing that this causes is even more damages.  This is precisely why crisis communication training is so important.

This accident has caused a lot of damage to BP, but the effects to its public image are going to be even worse.  I am afraid that my fellow coffee drinker at Starbucks is not the only one who will stop buying gas at BP.  I am sure that the other oil companies have paid close attention to what has happened.  After all, there are another four thousand oil wells just in the Gulf of Mexico – 30% of US oil comes from them.  It’s only a matter of time before another accident takes place.  Will the next oil company make the same mistakes as BP?

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3 Responses to “BP: PR disaster”

  1. Reva Torset Says:

    This whole oil situation is a shame. I wish BP gave a crap about the spill.

  2. Art Nagel Says:

    Thank you for your in-depth article. Considerably, the nightmare of the Florida oil polution is actually a burning question. I am constantly looking forward to forthcoming development, which eventually brings a solution and terminates the oil desaster.

  3. Oscar Tallman Says:

    Keep up good work,very good article.

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