Tuesday, April 12, 2011

BP: Image Restoration

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the largest accidental spill in the history of the petroleum industry. It flowed for three months, and continued to impact the environment even after it was capped. The explosion itself killed 11 people, injured 17, and has caused considerable damage to wildlife habitats. It has also had an adverse affect on the fishing and tourism industries.

That being said, the public was outraged and wanted answers. They wanted to know who was responsible, and what was being done to fix it. Unfortunately, BP was not particularly forthcoming with that information. Former CEO, Tony Hayward, went as far as to say, “The ocean is really big. The amount of oil spilled is, in comparison, very small.” This, unsurprisingly, did not go over well. Hayward was replaced by Bob Dudley shortly thereafter.

Dudley, along with the company’s PR department immediately set out to repair BP’s image. The task was a daunting one, but together they began to implore a series of image restoration strategies.

According to an article in the New York Times, Dudley told reporters that their rivals as well as the media, exacerbated emotions of fear that were caused by the spill. This is an attempt to shift blame from BP to the media, by saying they played upon these emotions of fear to get a more extreme reaction from the public.

Dudley then moved on to a tactic known as minimization. This is when the company or individual at fault tries to make the offense seem smaller than it actually is. He argued that while scientists were claiming the well was releasing 70,000 barrels of oil a day, the figure was probably closer to only 5,000. In actuality, the government eventually concluded that the exact figure was 62,000 barrels a day.

BP later went on to further evade responsibility. Dudley pointed a finger at the oil-drilling industry. The idea behind this technique is to give people someone else to blame. If the drilling industry is at fault, BP is off the hook, right? Wrong.

The press continued to ridicule BP. At this point, government ordered clean-up was already underway, but the negative press was taking its toll. For instance, many people stopped going to the Exxon in my hometown because it was supplied by British Petroleum. Who did this hurt? The owner of that one small gas station, his family, and the people he employed.

Finally, after months of being absolutely torn about by the press, BP decided to take responsibility for their actions. They apologized and admitted they put “cost-saving before safety.” Accepting blame is called mortification. This was done to get the public back on their side. I would argue, however, this step was taken a little too late in the game.

In recent months, BP has spent millions of dollars buying ads to let people know how things are going. The intention, of course, was to show the public the progress that has been made in the last year. Many people, however, see this as a self-serving waste of money, including president Barack Obama. This is money that could be better spent reaching out to displaced workers, and those who have been directly affected by the spill.

If I were to offer BP some advice, I would probably tell them to do daily briefings instead. Offer complete information overload. The more forthcoming a target of public scrutiny is, the less suspicious they appear. There is some damage that can’t be undone–the lag time in responding to the disaster, the failed attempts to cap the spill, the low estimates of the amount of oil that has leaked, etc. Revisiting these issues would be counter-productive.

Moving forward, my advice for BP would be to stop worrying so much about salvaging their public image. If they use their communications with the public to ease lives and solve problems, they may find that in time the public will be more forgiving.

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