I love NPR and I’m very grateful we have a source of news like they provide. But sometimes their reporting is so off base I can’t believe anyone would fund them, let alone the American people.
The story by Elizabeth Shogren is one of the best examples of how they can get it so wrong. Titled “A Textbook Example of How Not to Handle PR” is instead a textbook example of how easy it is for mainstream media to fall into their own meta-narrative traps without doing any real, substantive analysis of their own.
There is so much here to discuss but I’ll try to hit some highpoints.
1) Beyond PR. She makes the first mistake in thinking that BP’s reputation problems could have been avoided or minimized by better PR. That’s insane. No effective messaging or communication can cover for the fact that you are dumping millions of gallons of ugly crude into a body of water for months in full view of the world and with all your technical wizardry and billions in resources, are not able to stop it. Who does she think PR people are? Magicians? This is a problem that the very best and error free communications effort would not be able to overcome. Add to that the fact that the oil industry has one of the worst trust ratings of all (only media is worse as an industry). You start a problem like this in a deep deep hole, then you have the apparent inability to stop the problem, then you have a media environment that thrives on the blame game, you have politicians including the highest office in the land who innoculate themselves by heaping blame, and add to that, you have some pretty serious gaffes. BP’s reputation problem is not caused by bad PR. If any executive or PR person wants to take comfort in the idea that they would avoid such problems by eliminating BP’s gaffes, they are living in lala land. If BP’s communications had been perfect they still would have a nightmare reputation problem.
2) BP’s “failure to accept responsibility.” It is unbelievable to me that this media concocted lie continues to be repeated. All you have to do is go back to the very first releases and all subsequent information to hear BP repeat over and over and over: We are accepting responsibility, we are paying for everything, we will not quit until this is made right. The crazy thing is, despite the media’s (and now NPR’s) continual repetition of their evading responsibility, BP could have done much to evade it. First, they are one of three owners of that well. Second, as is clear from the numerous studies, there were a number of other companies involved and ultimately legal decisions will determine how much blame goes to each. There was only one time when it could be said that BP looked to be avoiding responsibility and that was when Congress forced them to testify. Now this is a judicial or quasi-judicial situation. If they had said in that setting that BP is alone is responsible, that they are absolving all others from any responsibility, that would have not only been false, it would have been completely ignoring their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. Congress put them in a legal and PR bind. But never did they publicly do anything to try to shift blame or not accept responsibility.
A corporate attorney for another very large global oil firm asked me recently: why did BP not simply commit to the $75 million limit on liability that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 allowed them. They could have done that. Instead of it costing them the billions they are paying they could have said legally we are obligated to $75 million. Instead, from the very beginning they said we are ignoring that limit and accepting responsibility to pay the bills. Come on NPR, dig a little deeper.
3) Anecdotal “evidence.”
So the reporter found a BP employee who was disgusted with their PR. His anger with BP and the widely reported gaffes of CEO Hayward are the primary basis for the inflammatory headline and thrust of the story. This event was and is incredibly disheartening to a great many good people that I know who work for or are associated with BP. And yes, was their frustration among some of them when Mr. Hayward went for a yacht ride? Absolutely. But why is there not a story (other than the one in the New Yorker which finally got it right) that showed how hard everyone was trying and the herculian efforts that were going in to stop the spill, minimize the damage and communicate openly and honestly about what was going on. Well, I guess the answer for NPR and other media is “yawn” who would care about that. Indeed, who cares about the truth, not when getting an audience is at stake.
4) The meta narrative at work. In Katrina the meta narrative quickly evolved. Response was a disaster, it was FEMAs fault, Bush’s problem. No one in the media took a deeper look and said, hey wait, FEMA is a funding organization meant not to respond but to channel federal funds to the state and local organizations who are responding. No one reported that because the meta narrative took on a life of its own. In the spill the meta narrative was and is that this event was caused by a rogue foreign company that cares nothing about the environment or the people it is hurting. The sub narrative is that their reputation problems are because of Hayward gaffes and bad PR. Such utter nonsense.
I’ve had email interchanges with a doctoral student who is doing a dissertation on the spill and the crisis communication implications. She too, like so many other crisis communication experts observing this from afar have concluded that BP’s reputation problems are because of bad PR. It did not take long to convince her there was much more to the story than the simple, melodramatic tale of a company suffering from bumbling PR. I just wish Ms. Shogren had also asked some questions and been willing to look a little deeper.
(Full disclosure–BP has been a long time client of my former company in providing crisis communication technology. That’s why I know some of the very good, hard working and well intentioned communication people who not only have been trying their best but doing some incredibly good work.)