BP’s Crisis Communication Needs a Heck of a Make-Over

Don't Panic Guide to Crisis Communications - L...Image by stedavies via Flickr

You’d think that a company as big as BP should have been prepared in dealing with crisis management, particularly  crisis communication. Not just the company itself or its spokesperson but also its top officials (e.g. Tony Haywood) who may be called upon to explain and communicate its crisis response to the public. To the contrary, its forays into the media are so bad that it’s hard not to cover your eyes every time its officials say something on camera.  They’re like walking disasters, no?

Before the big media outlet started emblazoning the tee-vee screen with “Disaster in the Gulf” and similar catchy titles, the company could have done more, but did not.

Who could forget BP CEO Tony Hayward who infamously informed tee-vee audiences worldwide, “I’d like my life back?”

This, after another screamer where he said, “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.”  Really, now.

How about — “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest,” Hayward also told reporters.

A couple of days after saying he’d like his life back CNN reported that BP has hired a PR firm outside Madison Avenue for its new ad campaign:

Energy giant BP has hired a Washington-based, bipartisan political consulting firm to produce its new aggressive national advertising push, including a national TV spot released Thursday, CNN has learned.

Sources familiar with the arrangement say that Purple Strategies, headed up by veteran political consultants Steve McMahon, a Democrat, and Alex Castellanos, a Republican, produced new advertisements now running on both television and in newspapers.

The sources say that BP hired Purple Strategies to produce what will likely be a series of advertisements as part of BP’s attempt to rehabilitate its battered image.

Purple Strategies is working alongside the Brunswick public relations firm, which has had BP as a client for some time. Its Washington office is run by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen.
The lobbying firms working for BP are among the most influential in Washington, including the Podesta Group (headed by Tony Podesta, one of Washington’s top lobbyists and the brother of former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta) and the Duberstein Group (headed by former Reagan Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein). They were originally hired to represent BP’s interests as major energy and financial legislation moves through Congress.

However, sources involved in BP’s lobbying efforts, say that since the April 20 oil rig explosion, the lobbying firms have had an all-hands-on-deck approach in trying to help BP deal with the myriad of congressional inquiries.

ABC News later reported that “Independent analysts estimate the cost of the public relations and ad campaign as at least $50 million.”

Hey, big guys — that $50 mil ain’t doing a great job.

I’ve seen that $50mil ad every day I watch the update on the Gulf Oil Spill. Aggressive it may be, but I don’t think it helps rehabilitate BP’s image. Personally, I cringe, every time BP’s Tony H. comes on. My co-viewers actually shouts at the tee-vee every time Tony’s ad is on.  I’m still surprised no one has yet thrown away the tee-vee out my window.  But really — doesn’t that ad only serves to emphasized the disconnect that the company has with the ongoing environmental disaster?

Especially, when that spot comes on right after graphic photos of death unfolding in the Gulf?

Another day, CBS reported about the local residents’ difficulties in getting assistance from BP. The news highlighted an individual who has a restaurant and could not connect with the BP folks for the last four days. Until CBS News came calling, that is. Then suddenly, he got an appointment. And then, a BP assistance center staff, caught on tape puts paper over the network’s camera barking something like you can’t bring a camera here.

Nice. You’d think that after such bad press about slow assistance that the company would like to show that indeed its assistance center is off and running and ready to help. Instead, tee-vee audiences get a peek at an arrogant employee pulling down the shade. Of course, they’re just doing their jobs; but they’re doing it rather badly.   

Who can blame Jason Linkins for concluding that BP is better at stemming journalists than oil wells?

In Mother Jones’ case, Mac McClelland could not even see Elmer’s Island unless he gets a BP escort. The reporter was told “BP’s in charge because “it’s BP’s oil.”  Are they going to start a trend here for embed oil spill journalists now? 

Some two weeks after the BP CEO said he wanted his life back, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg finally heard him.  The Chairman has unceremoniously announced that Tony Hayward will no longer be managing the day-to-day operations of the Gulf cleanup effort.

So, there. Tony finally gets his life back. Just a few hours ago, AP reported that Tony H. is attending a yacht race off the Isle of Wight in southern England. Must be quite a change from being grilled in DC.  

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, himself has some issues on what to call the victims of this environmental disaster. Stay in your seats, this is far from over.

From now on, I supposed, Bob Dudley (who will replace Tony H. as BP’s point man in the oil clean up) as new diplomatic director of disaster operations will have no life, too. Poor Bob.  Newsweek calls him BP’s new clean-up czar. I hope he is a real one with supreme powers to deal with this nasty oil spill.

Some more on Mr. Dudley from Businessweek:  He has been Executive Director of BP plc since April 6, 2009. He also serves as Executive Vice President of BP plc and has been its Head of Disaster Management Unit since June 2010. He and his wife of 29 years, Mary, have two children.  He has a BA in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois. He received his MIM from the Thunderbird School of Global Management and also holds an MBA from Southern Methodist University.

Perhaps that is good news. He’s American, speaks without a British accent, and may be more attuned to the American public. Can he help BP rebrand itself? Don’t know. But first on his list, should be to ditch that $50mil ad with Tony H. which looks and sounds fantastically bad. Perhaps they can take a lesson from Edward Murrow. The former director of the USIA once said: “Truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”    

Yep, as simple as that.

The bad news, of course, and there is always one — is that this is the same Mr. Dudley who said “I think Tony’s doing a fantastic job,” in Meet the Press on May 30th …

So, let’s wait and see ….

In any case, methinks rebuilding corporate credibility is more than a $50 million job.  Remember the Exxon Valdez spill?  Then there’s the Tylenol Crisis of 1982. One now hauls ore, the other made it through and back, and continues to be a top seller brand.  Of course, the media landscape in 1982 (with three TV networks) and 2010 (with new and social media on 24/7) are worlds apart. But I don’t think this has to do with the money you pour into a media campaign. It’s all about engagement at minute speeds (not hours, not days, not weeks), about anticipating the sticky curve down the road, and above all, connecting with the audience at the emotional level.  Saying you’d like your life back is tacky considering that thousands more affected by the spill may never get the lives as they knew it, back.  Calling folks affected by the disaster “small people,” even as you profess to care for them is like building a brick wall instead of a bridge.    

I wonder if BP’s ad has a money back guarantee.