My how the hatred flowed like the oil into the Gulf. BP was the evil foreign monster who ruthlessly, negligently, and with malice aforethought destroyed the environment, eleven lives and millions of livelihoods.
BP’s response was to accept full responsibility for the clean up and expenses, knowing full well there were other companies involved–Transocean, Halliburton, Anadarko and Mitsui just to name a few. And they absolutely opened up their check book. To the chagrin and concern of many others in the oil industry, they set a new standard for largesse as they battled the oil, the politicians, the press and the public. It turns out both a lot of politicians and members of the public were greedy and willing to take full advantage of the outrage heaped on the company to profit from it.
The extensive research and reporting done by ProPublica displays very clearly the ugly reality of an environmental disaster, especially when a company under such huge pressure is willing to do almost anything to try to make things right. The ugly reality is human greed and abuse of power. Craig Taffaro, along with Billy Nungesser his fellow Parish President, became somewhat of a hero, testifying before Congress and shown in the media spotlight as fighting for his people. Read the ProPublica story and decide what kind of hero he is.
From a crisis communication standpoint, this raises troubling issues. I felt throughout the event, and communicated it to the highest levels in BP I could, that it was necessary for them to be more aggressive in defending themselves against the viciousness of attacks from the media, politicians, and the public. Yes, there was a gigantic spill and it was a terrible accident and a huge mess. Yes, they were accepting responsibility and cleaning it up. But it doesn’t give people the right to say things they did, to spread rumors and lies, to attack them on every front on the flimsiest of excuses (remember the brouhaha over a photoshopped image–an innocent mistake with no sinister intent but blown into an example of BP’s deviousness).
Even now, as the attention of journalists is starting to shift to other bad guys in this story (Washington Post) BP is remarkably reticent to be more aggressive in its communication. Note its reluctance to provide information that would be damning to those who so brutally ripped them off. They may be right in doing so because the meta-narrative created by the media and supported by the politicians of the evil, bumbling giant is still very much with us. And those reporters seeking to highlight how BP is not just vermin but victim will so quickly turn on BP if they see any effort to remove the blackhat. It is in their best interests in terms of building audience to keep that blackhat firmly on BP’s head. However, there is also gain to made–much less so–from graying the hats of those they painted white in the midst of this event.
While public opinion remains fixed on BP’s evil, I am convinced that long term the story of the gulf spill will be one of a company verminized and victimized but who in general responded with exceptional generosity and a real commitment to make right a most horrific accident.