Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mommy, why don't companies talk like human beings?

Posted by Greg Matusky
Part of the public's disappointment over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico centers on our inability to gain any real information about the catastrophe. Five-thousand feet of water presents ample opportunity to conceal the truth, and BP has done little to nothing to inform the world as to the extent of the spill.

In an industry that prides itself on numbers (I should know, because my first job was working in public relations for an energy company compiling its annual fact book), it's remarkable that BP can't calculate the rate of flow from a well that cost $1 million a day to operate.

BP's unwillingness to share these numbers suggests that the spill is much larger than being estimated. Even more troubling is why our government refuses to force BP to divulge numbers, or even send our own research vessels and scientists to gain insight.

So then you turn to BP's website. Its homepage now opens in big bold letters that read, "Gulf of Mexico Response." There are a lot of links present, some of which are way too self-serving at this point in the crisis. I do give BP credit for linking to actual press interviews, many of which challenge BP managers for answers.

Click on the "TODAY Show" interview where Matt Lauer confronts BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles. Suttles is quick to note BP's success in inserting a four-inch tube into the collapsed underwater pipeline. But Suttles gives no idea how much of an impact the procedure will make, even after Lauer analogizes the process to inserting a straw into a swimming pool.



Now turn to BP's own press releases, and you understand why BP's public response is failing. In written communications, the company turns to engineering jargon to give little real information about the incident. It makes you wonder, why don't companies talk like human beings? In times like these, why wouldn't BP want to impart meaning, instead of confusion?

Take the opening headline of one release. It reads, "Subsea Source Control and Containment." I assume the company is trying to update us on its progress in stemming the flow of crude oil. But that's left to our best guess, when the company refuses to even speak in plain English.

You can debate whether subsea is a word or just a term of art in the oil and gas industry. After all, the sea is water, not the air above it. So the subsea must be something underneath the sea -- maybe mud, maybe bedrock, maybe oil reserves. Who knows? Wouldn't it be nice if BP had just said, "Here's an update on our efforts to contain the spill on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico?" See, I would have understood that. But then the release gets even better:

"Subsea efforts continue to focus on progressing options to stop the flow of oil from the well through interventions via the blow out preventer (BOP), and to collect the flow of oil from the leak points."

"Focus on progressing options?" What is BP trying to say? I presume it wants to say that it is simultaneously pursuing a number of options to stop the underwater oil spill by working on the blow out preventer and collecting leaking oil. But the sentence is so poorly constructed, you don't know what it is saying.

I am sure the language was all twisted and edited by round after round of legal review, as well as the industry's own prescribed methods of responding to problems.

See in da earl bidnis, there is no such thing as a spill. Note that BP calls the spill a flow and a leak point. I can just imagine the powers that be debating the difference between spills, leaks, and flows. "A leak is a drip. A spill is a calamity," they might be saying to one another over a secure teleconference between New Orleans and London.

It's an energy company trick I learned early in my career, when a vice president of public relations explained to me that coal is not black, dark, dusty, or chalky. Rather, it's rich and luminous, and should be characterized as such in all press materials.

All this answers the question, "Why can't companies talk like human beings?" Some of the smartest people in the world work in the energy business, which is precisely why they refuse to talk like human beings. Using clear and compelling language would require BP to answer the prime question, "How much oil is being spilled?" Right now, that's the last thing BP intends to tell us, and it is doing a good job of it.
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