In the past few days, the media and the public have begun to show a weariness with the Gulf Spill. In a time when stories come and go like the spring sun between our incessant showers, and the media shows interest only in what is happening right now, the public attention on this event has been phenomenal. Certainly a tribute to the scope and magnitude of the event as well as nothing more major pushing the story off the front page (whoa, that’s an anachronism, isn’t it?).
Web traffic is beginning to decline after it seemed almost every day was reaching new peaks in either visits or data transfer. Other news stories are starting the nightly news casts and images other than oil on beaches or pelicans are on front pages.
Is the communication job done? Hardly. In many ways the real work begins. BP launched shortly after the event a very impressive community relations effort throughout the gulf region. It would have been impressive in any event of anywhere near normal scope, but the dozens of quality people they have out meeting with the communities, individuals, elected officials etc. were dwarfed by the news stories and the sheer massiveness of the event. But that kind of one to one, person to person, company to community is where the real action will be in the immediate and much longer term future.
In the meantime, the political and now geo-political melodrama goes on. The president’s critics are do all they can to pin this event on the president. For every tail they wish to pin on him, he deftly dodges it and the pin sticks deeply into BP’s backside. He has found the ass he’s been looking for and is kicking it vigorously.
What is increasingly interesting is the way this is playing in the UK. New British Prime Minister Cameron is coming under increasing heat for not standing up to President Obama as he daily does his best to destroy what little reputation BP might have had left–called “vengeful posturing” in UK media. The cost for a great many in Britain is great.The $10b BP pays in dividends goes largely to pensioners so that 1/8 of all pounds paid out in pensions come from BP’s stock. There is no question, no question at all, that as much of a mess that BP is in, it has been made much worse by the presidential politics attempting to avoid the mud of Katrina. For those who want to blame Bush for everything, it might be fair to blame Bush for much of BP’s woes, for if the federal response to Katrina might have been better or at least less criticized, the current administration would not be so desperate to pin the tail on that BP donkey. The effort to avoid blame has casued the nation to lose all confidence–not only in BP but also in the response overall.
So I expect two additional things to happen with communication on the spill. The rhetoric will begin to tone down, for two reasons. One is that I have little doubt that already the president is facing some backroom discussions about the wisdom of forcing BP to suspend dividends and the impact this will have on cross-Atlantic relations. Second, with the federal government holding the boot on the neck of BP for so long, they are going to have to start assuming some level of public responsibility for their posturing. That means (and I am seeing some of this already) they are going to have to start telling what a good job they are doing–in everything from stopping the spill to getting claims paid. Yes, they will take full credit, as they are doing now for everything that BP or the response does, but the message will change.
I’ve been amazed that despite the political polarization in our major media, they have all essentially followed the same line. It’s been fascinating to watch the media blame game played new everyday (today it is the New York Times saying the response is chaotic) followed by a response from the administration, unfortunately using the Joint Information Center, to respond with a political message, followed by media reports on the president’s response, followed by new accusations. I certainly have wearied of this tiresome game and I think most less-interested observers have as well. I welcome this phase, at least as I hope it will play out.