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BP’s Misguided PR Campaign

Most big corporations will face a PR challenge at one point or another during their lifetime. Accidents are bound to happen and mistakes will inevitably be made. So, how did BP do with its 2010 oil spill crisis? Not so good, according to experts.

From the start, BP CEO at the time, Tony Heyward, stumbled in the media spotlight. From his deflection of blame (“it’s not our accident, but…”) and his infamous quote (“there’s no one who wants this over more than I do. You know, I want my life back”) to the company’s complete 180 on making things right with the businesses it hurt, the company has been an example of “what not to do.”

Media and communications consultant Ian Capstick said early in the crisis, “From the retaining of outside PR firms, to the company’s (lack of) use of social channels and the hiring of a Bush-Cheney-era communicator, BP has done little to impress the critics.”

Kelly O’Keefe, a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter said “…BP fell short – understating the volume of the spill, attempting to deflect blame and for a time, treating the crisis as if it were a matter to be handled by lower offices of the company.” O’Keefe doesn’t believe that to this day, three years later, BP has reached a level of forgiveness from the public. That’s a strong statement considering the billion dollar oil giant has spent hundreds of millions marketing their clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

Randy Hallman of the Richmond Times discussed BP’s PR strategy in the wake of the 2010 oil spill that killed 11 rig workers, destroyed Gulf coast economies, and continues to devastate wildlife. “BP got it so very wrong, they’ll tell you.”

The key component to addressing crisis situations is the manner and message the public receives during this time of ‘damage control’. As most marketing experts would agree, marketing and public relations is not a one-sided communication from company to consumer. The evolution of social media has provided a megaphone to the often loud and opinionated general public, forcing companies to at least heed, if not dialogue with them, like it or not.

While damage control is really only one aspect of a PR strategy, it can prove to be the most significant when a company is in the cross hairs of the media and public eye. PR firms across the board will agree on several basic rules of thumb that should always be followed when dealing with a public crisis:

• Accept full responsibility, even if other parties are involved. Speak for your own organization and acknowledge the harm.
• Apologize for your action or inaction. Admission of wrong-doing is the first step, and the second step is your attempt to make things right.
• Address all audiences – internal and external. Use real time ads and editorial placement, radio, social media, and all other forms of media.
• Be honest. The truth will always come out. It is in your best interest to be genuine and open from day one, leaving no room for secrecy and misconduct.

BP joins the ranks of many other public companies that put profits over people and got caught. While initially showing signs of promise to do right by the people it harmed in addition to the environmental efforts it launched, it just couldn’t stay the course. And, too bad for BP, even if the public eventually starts to forget (which is not likely with a disaster of this magnitude), the occasional tar ball or eyeless shrimp simply won’t let us.

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