Does anyone else think the administration’s attacks on BP over the top?

Sometimes I think I’m the only one in the world willing to once in a while defend BP. And yes, I’m sure it has something to do with knowing a considerable number of the people who work there who without exception in my opinion are some of the nicest, most honorable, most competent people I know. (Disclosure–yes, BP has been a client for crisis comms technology) Sometimes, particularly after the spill, it has been hard to watch some of the unintentional self-destruction such as the recent problems in Chicago. It’s been particularly hard to see far too much evidence of being thoroughly “lawyered-up.” It was also a little painful (but appropriate) for Richard Edelman in his recent presentation on PR strategy to the Board of Penn State to say we are not going to advertise our way out of this, ala BP.

All that being said, I am astonished, stunned and yes, infuriated with the latest from this administration regarding the legal case of the federal government against BP. As I have written about frequently on this blog and in my case study on the Gulf Spill, the Obama administration took the tack of using all options at his disposal, including the government response structure, to heap blame on BP and inoculate the administration. The fallout and damage from this in the oil industry and the 20 year tradition of “single voice” communication and partnership in response will be felt for many years to come.

But, the administration is not done yet. In shocking language, the Department of Justice appears to either be taking an over-the-top approach to extracting every possible fine dollar from BP, or simply further inflame public outrage.

Here’s a sampling from a Reuters story:

“The behavior, words, and actions of these BP executives would not be tolerated in a middling size company manufacturing dry goods for sale in a suburban mall,” government lawyers wrote in the filing on August 31 in federal court in New Orleans.

The heart of the accusations appear to be a mis-reading of a critical pressure test–an error according to the government (but missing from headlines) attributed to both BP engineers and Transocean. “That such a simple, yet fundamental and safety-critical test could have been so stunningly, blindingly botched in so many ways, by so many people, demonstrates gross negligence,” the government said in its 39-page filing.

Hmmm, clearly these government lawyers know a lot more about interpreting data from highly complex instruments than the engineers.

But, is this kind of language and treatment normal? Not reading a lot of these filings, I couldn’t say, but one former environmental prosecutor said: “The department’s latest filing ‘contains sharper rhetoric and a more indignant tone than the government has used in the past,’ he said.”

As if this is not enough, Daily Dog, as it has frequently in the past, does its best to pile on BP (and basically any other major organization on the hot seat).

Clearly, BP’s reputation is in tatters. It is in the worst possible situation in which the political assessment of almost any elected official or wanna be is that they win by attacking the company, and lose by doing anything to defend it. Same, one might think, for any journalist interested in a career. You can win by showing how evil this corporation, you can’t by writing about anything that shows maybe they are people doing their best in horrible circumstances.

How did all this happen? How can one of the biggest, most respected, organizations–one who holds the future of millions of British pensioners in its hands, how can it fall so far, so fast? One can look at the sequence of bad news events: Texas City refinery, Alaska pipeline corrosion, the gulf spill, the Chicago bad gas and conclude, this is one messed-up organization. If that is so, it is a huge lesson for any corporate giant swallowing up others and trying to digest them into a cohesive entity with a distinct culture.

I think it is more than BP’s problem. The entire oil industry shares to varying degrees the deep hole that BP finds itself in. It was created in part, by the industry burying its head in the sand post ExxonValdez as to the importance of building public trust and respect. As one industry leader is said to have said: they are going to buy our product whether they hate us or not, so why bother?

Because the industry did not bother to build value in stakeholder’s minds, BP is paying a high price. Imagine if the government were to use similar language in a federal prosecution against a company it felt was held in high regard by the public. Say the government attacked Apple for a major mistake or not caring sufficient for its workers? Would such language in a law suit be used? Big oil is an easy target to attack, not so easy to defend. There is an issue of political calculation and essential fairness here. Before cheering the government on, give a thought to those good people who keep you supplied with the fuel products and energy you need to live the life you choose.


2 thoughts on “Does anyone else think the administration’s attacks on BP over the top?”

  1. CrisisBlogger: You have touched a very raw nerve in many here. Many will say certainly BP and for the most part Big Oil deserve the pile on. Look, oil tar balls are coming up on the beach of Louisiana from Hurricane Isaac two years after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. In this election season, Tis the Season, to gain favor by “attack” on anyone and any company that makes your case for “saving” the middle class. Beat up or down anyone or any company that proves the point.

    If a company doesn’t perform per expectation then attack is fair, warranted and expected. Look at Facebook and Zuckerberg. The darling stock has under performed and the people are calling for Mark’s head, even though he gave $100 million to Camden NJ schools.

    While I admire many BP personnel and recognize it supports many pensioners, my counsel to BP is similar to Edelman to Penn State, “You can’t ‘advertise’ you way out of a reputation.” Reputation is earned by performance….over many years. And, I mean many years!

    There is much more to this debate about performance earning reputation and when linked to a political system the debate doubles. BP and Penn State earned the spotlight. Now they and many others must earn the right to leave the spotlight. And, politics and politicians may not let them leave the spotlight when it helps make their re-election case.

  2. Every company should have a robust crisis communications plan. In the case of BP, they didn’t. The administration has, as you said, gone overboard with their attacks. But to take the devils advocate side, this administration did make an example of why every company in corporate america needs a crisis communication plan. BP has barely survived, will you?

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