A public relations game plan for BP

June 8, 2010

So finally this weekend, we received some good news from the Gulf Coast. BP’s containment dome appears to be capturing significant amounts of the oil spill, and BP CEO Tony Hayward told the BBC he expects this latest development could lead to the vast majority of the leak being captured at, or near, the well head.

Even with this news, BP is left in a disastrous PR position, forever tattooed as the perpetrator of the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Can they ever rebound? Exxon did from the Valdez oil spill, even though a recent forensic study revealed open pools of oil still scar the shoals of Prudhoe Bay, 20 years after the catastrophe.

With more than $6 billion in first quarter earnings, BP certainly has the financial wherewithal to weather the storm. But the company has to change its approach to the public, and take real and lasting steps to systemically transform itself into a company that understands the public trust it holds in its hands every time it undertakes the risky endeavor to sink a well. Here’s what I would be telling BP:

1. Put up or shut up. Now that progress is being made to capture the leaking oil, it’s time for BP to put up a $1 billion remediation fund for the people of Gulf Coast. Use the money to ramp up restoration. Pay off claims. Bail out busted businesses. And clean the shores and wetlands. It’s a monumental challenge that takes money. BP has the money and needs to spend it now to reclaim any hope of salvaging its global reputation. It’s also in the best interest of BP shareholders. Without strong and quick action, the company faces tremendous risk that can be mitigated through sincere and immediate action.

2. Put up another $200 million to fund oil industry remediation research, centered at Louisiana State University. Since Edwin Drake, the oil industry’s technological breakthroughs have focused on getting oil out of the ground. Horizontal drilling. CO2 injection. Tethered platforms. Deep water drilling needs technology to keep oil in the ground or from ever hitting the ground, beaches, and oceans. The unintended consequence of Prudhoe Bay is that the world actually believes steam and paper towels can clean up an oil spill. (They can’t and they don’t.) Oil industry technology has to go beyond simply drilling deeper and cleaning up the mess after the fact. The industry needs to develop new technologies to contend with the risk of today’s deep water drilling, whether here, in the North Sea, or off Norway.

3. Get Tony Hayward off American TV. A recent study conducted by Gregory FCA shows that Hayward’s reputation has cratered since BP started airing TV commercials with him serving as spokesperson. The American ideal of a leader isn’t someone who looks like Liz Lemon’s fall-back love on “30 Rock,” Welsey Snipes. (No, not that Wesley Snipes.)

Separated at birth: Tony Hayward …

Wesley Snipes (not that Wesley Snipes)

Rather, we need to see and hear from a fellow American who has a vested interest in our country, not the whiny Hayward, who recently lamented that he can’t wait for the crisis to be over so he can get his life back.

4. Establish a bi-partisan commission to monitor and report on clean up efforts. Valdez shows us that once the crisis is over and the cameras go home, the clean up is ignored. Tap someone like George Mitchell for oversight. Task him to release monthly and quarterly reports showing how the clean up is progressing and whether there’s any hope of returning the Gulf to what it had been.

5. Invest in New Orleans. Make a statement in the very heart of the Gulf. Pay to rebuild its levies (more than the federal government has done). Restore its estuaries. Work with environmental groups to restore the wetlands that once filtered Mississippi water before dumping run off into the Gulf.

6. Stop working in the messaging points. If we hear BP taking credit one more time for how well it’s beach protection program is going, the federal government should pull its leases in the Gulf. Throughout the crisis, BP’s PR people have been trying to plant positive stories on its website and in comments made by its executives. It’s callous and failing. Stop it.

7. Develop a new level of ethics in government relations. Obviously, our federal government is incapable of regulating the businesses under its charge. The administration’s early belief that BP would take care of everything was naive. As James Carville said, the “political stupidity is unbelievable.” Stained as it is, BP needs to now clean house of its government relations people and replace the palm greasers with real, live enforcers.

8. Can the greenwashing. BP changed its name to drop the petroleum. It invoked a new green logo. It loves to show off its modest alternative energy projects. The truth is, there are not alternatives to oil right now. And BP isn’t committed to alternatives, when you consider Deepwater Horizon cost $1 million a day to operate before it blew up and sank to the bottom of the Gulf. So stop it, and focus your attention on the mess you have made, instead of trying to convince the world you are something you are not.

Take these steps, and BP will survive. Walk away from the mess, and wrongly protect short-term shareholder dividends instead of resurrecting the company’s long-term reputation, and BP could lose its North American operations, or worse, serve as the next global conglomerate to fail under its own weight.

It’s now that BP’s PR people, whose missteps are the fodder for tomorrow’s PR text books, need to earn their keep. The world will judge BP on its response, starting today, as the containment dome starts working, and a global reputation hangs in the balance.

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8 years 11 months ago

nice wrap up. i've been having serious doubts that bp can recover. i wonder what kind of costs they incurred to simply manage the leak…? it's a business, pr, environmental, natural, and leadership disaster. it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Greg Matusky
8 years 11 months ago
Thanks for the comment Kathryn. I think the American people have a tremendous capacity to forgive. But they need to see real contrition and action. Our national attitude will no doubt be shaped by the opinions of our fellow Americans who work and live in the Gulf. Many of them depend on oil for their livelihoods. If BP helps them in a real way, and at the same time makes the area a better place to live and work, then they can overcome this. Those are big if's, and as we have seen recently with the financial meltdown, big business… Read more »