Tag Archives: BP reputation

What, someone in PR sticking up for BP?

In a sort of man bites dog turnaround, a highly respected PR consultant asks an intriguing and important question: How good does a good company have to be. Here is Jim Lukaszewski (luke-a-shev-ski)’s post about what BP has done and what continues to be demanded of them.

I won’t say anymore, because crisisblogger readers know my feelings about BP and the commentary about their “reputation problems.” And also, full disclosure once more, I have consulted with BP in the past and at least continue to be acquainted with some of the very fine people who work there.

 

How can NPR get the BP PR story so wrong?

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.)

BP moving from vermin to victim

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.

 

Is the BP “black hat” fair?

There is a difference between perception and reality. That is intuitive, and public relations people have often said “perception is reality.” That’s because what people think (their perception) matters much more than what is. The goal of reputation management is largely about aligning perception and reality when the perception is bad.

What do you think of BP? If I were to ask the average person on the street or the average reporter what they think of BP, the following words would probably be used: evil, rogue company, uncaring, irresponsible, unusually careless, self-centered (“I want my life back” and yacht racing). There is no question that the primary story coming out of the spill is that while all major corporations tend toward the socially irresponsible and evil, BP, sort of like Enron, personifies the worst of what’s wrong with big, global companies.

The National Oil Spill Commission findings contradict that perception. The relevant quotation from the Wall Street Journal article is:

The blowout “was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again,” according to a chapter of the report released Wednesday. “Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.”

I do not anticipate that this finding will do much if anything to resurrect BP’s demolished public image. The only thing that will do that is continued effort at restoring the Gulf and operating well. As someone who was involved to some degree in helping BP communicate during the event, this report replays some of the anguish I and others felt during the horrific beating the company was taking this summer. When asked about BP, one word is not likely to come to mind for most people: victim.

I’m not saying this to try to defend BP or refurbish their reputation–and I am not working for them or being paid by them. I will not forget that eleven people died, a great many others have suffered great personal loss and the environment was severely and possibly in some ways permanently damaged. That is horrific and the report makes it clear that BP and others are to blame for this.

What I am talking about is whether public perception about BP, its roles, its activities, its culture, its values, is accurate or not. I don’t think it is, and that is a problem for the company but also for everyone else who clearly recognizes that “there but for the grace of God go I.” There is a gap between public perception and the reality of BP and its mistakes.

Could things have been done differently to avoid that misperception? I think so and I have commented about those here before. More importantly, for those companies who have an appropriate sense of vulnerability to the public beating they may take, what can they do to prevent it? Here are a few thoughts:

1) Look inside. Make concern for others and doing the right thing the highest corporate value. Reputation ultimately springs from character and values. The goal is to build trust and now I am more convinced than ever that trust needs to be built from the inside out.

2) Stockpile a solid reputation. You need public reputation equity. If you are not in trouble now, now is the time to put goodwill in the bank. Waste no opportunity, but focus those efforts on those people whose opinion of you matters most for your future.

3) When it happens, react quickly. And that depends on preparation. BP was more prepared than almost any other organization I know. And yet there were fundamental flaws in their preparation.

4) For the sake of your future, defend yourself. Don’t stand idly by while the crowd gathers around with truncheons. For the sake of truth, honesty and trust, be prepared to aggressively defend yourself. Yes, assuming you have screwed up, admit it, apologize, say what you are doing to fix it, do it–but that does not mean you have to sit back and take the lies, attacks, politicization, and mistreatment that will inevitably be handed out. You have a story to tell–tell it and tell it well.

5) Never, ever lose your credibility. What you do comes first, what you say is important and how it is said. When your spokespersons, your face to the public, becomes tainted and loses credibility (which is almost inevitable given the certain beating) you must move quickly to have a credible face to the public. Preparing the leaders you have to be that face is one of the most important things you can do.

And since, it does often come down to “the grace of God”, during all your preparations, pray.

Former BP crisis comms leader, Neil Chapman, provides some of best crisis prep advice

I’m very pleased to share Crisisblogger with my good friend and associate Neil Chapman, with Alpha Voice Communications. Neil recently left BP where he served in a number of communication leadership positions, including leadership roles in the Texas City, Alaska corrosion and Deepwater Horizon events. Few people on earth have been on the frontlines of communication during so many major events or crises, which have also included natural disasters such as Katrina. But it is also true that few have the ability to turn those gut-wrenching experiences into practical lessons learned that can help others prepare and respond. As they used to say about a major investment firm, when Neil Chapman speaks, crisis communicators listen.

Goodbye 2010.  Last year saw different crises –the horrific Haiti earthquake, the ash cloud air chaos and snow muddle, both in the UK and US. Along with scores of communications professionals, I was caught up in the BP oil spill for too much of 2010,

Both a human and environmental disaster, the event was complex and extremely expensive in its emotional and economic toll. Any organisation facing an emergency or crisis would be wise to learn lessons from the incident, without the costs that befell BP.

Reports and inquiry testimony are readily available to study. BP has produced its own investigation report and a technical lessons learned document with accompanying DVD –  http://www.bp.com/liveassets/bp_internet/globalbp/globalbp_uk_english/incident_response/STAGING/local_assets/downloads_pdfs/Deepwater_Horizon_Containment_Response.pdf

Many pundits have shared opinions about where BP went wrong and what it should have done. Here are some observations, that can point to where organisations might start to look for lessons relevant to them:

Readiness – an every day investment

In a crisis, time is precious, priorities key. Whatever the world thinks, BP was readier than many organisations. Meetings need a purpose, priorities established, decisions taken efficiently, communications clear and concise. All good skills and habits worth cultivating for every day business. But it takes training and practice.

Know the system

If outside agencies, especially emergency services, respond to a corporation’s incident, it will likely be managed using an established response system with tried and tested procedures and protocols. Corporate responders – including senior management – need to be familiar with the system.

It’s an on-line world

On-line is where most of the conversations and coverage about a crisis now occur. Corporate communicators who believe they should focus solely on traditional, mainstream media during a crisis – however demanding they are – will miss most of what is being said about them by default.

Social media smart

A crisis is not the time to learn the challenges and opportunities of social media such as You Tube, Twitter, Facebook etc. These channels can hurt and help at the same time. Corporate communicators need to be social media savvy, knowing when and how they can use these channels in a crisis. And tomorrow there will be a new one to learn about …

A mobile world

As well as being on-line, the world carries the internet on its hip or in a purse. To reach key audiences on the go, corporate communicators cannot be hidebound by the technology they are permitted or know how to use.

Information discipline

To provide timely, accurate on-message information to the outside world as soon as possible across an organisation requires discipline to ensure it is shared effectively inside too. Information discipline gets harder over time, as people shift in and out or they are spread over geography and time zones. Has your organisation got a system other than email?

Plan for help

Chances are a corporate communications department will need extra people to cope with the tremendous information demand during a crisis. To bring them on-board takes time and effort, just when you need both for other priorities.  Learn how to integrate extra resources quickly as well as how to coordinate with other agencies.

Communications processes

A corporate communications manual provides clear ‘how to’ instructions that save time and help integrate the ‘new hands’ an organisation needs. Have you got one?

Leaders – be hard, be soft

A crisis tests any leader’s people skills. Responders need honest feedback, positive and negative. If something or someone isn’t working, the problem has to be fixed quickly to keep the response on track. But at the same time, people need to be ‘nurtured’ when the going gets tough for them.

Beware of the toll

Crises wear people down. The strain can show up at work or at home. Relationships may break. Any corporation that sees its people as an important asset needs to provide effective employee support in a crisis. The first step is to make sure they are trained.

Think strategic

It’s hard to see the writing on the wall with your back to it!  It’s too easy to get trapped into focusing on an immediate challenge – and not to look far enough ahead. A team, or someone, needs to be thinking long term from the outset.

Don’t make it worse..

Until the world thinks the crisis is fixed, there’s a lot an organisation can say to make things worse for itself. Stay on message and talk ‘actions, actions, actions’.

BP’s crisis was the first energy industry disaster of the social media age. The result was that information – good and bad – travelled at an exceptionally fast rate, was dominated by digital and saw demand for it go through the roof. But some of the most effective communication took place face to face.

The communications landscape is now much, much broader than it was. Organisations – particularly corporate communicators – should take note and learn because 2011 will bring its own crop of crises.

Neil Chapman worked as a communicator for BP until last year. He has 25+ years experience dealing with crises and difficult public affairs issues around the globe. He founded Alpha Voice Communications consultancy to focus on crisis communications readiness, presentation training and issues management. Go to:www.alphavoicecommunications.com to find out more.

The link between reputation and company value–BP shows the high cost

Public relations pros often deal with the question as to how to get CEOs to pay more attention to the vital role of reputation management. Some CEO’s seems to inherently “get it,” and others, often financial-metric driven, have a harder time understanding the link because they don’t see an obvious connection between investments in reputation management or protection to the all-important quarterly results.

Crisis expert James Donnelly pointed this out in a recent post referencing a Forbes article which suggested we may be entering an age of reputation management. But, if anyone doubts the stunning impact of reputation loss on economic value, all one has to do is look at BP. One of the highest value and most respected (albeit hated by anyone who thinks hydrocarbons are evil) companies, has dropped out of the list of the 100 most valuable brands as a result of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. This according to brand valuation expert Interbrand.

I suspect that BP will be used for many years by anyone pitching PR services and particularly crisis preparation services to senior leaders. And well they should be. But I do have a fear. I’m afraid the pitch will be: See what happens when you don’t do good PR? Your reputation will go to heck and your brand value will be destroyed.  A much better pitch in my mind would be: There are some problems that even great PR can’t fix, so if you have any chance of doing some really serious damage to people, their futures or the environment, let’s look first at minimizing the risk of those bad things happening, and then let’s look at how to respond effectively if some really bad things do happen.

On BP reputation issues–Reuters gets it wrong, Dezenhall gets it right

It’s been fascinating to me to watch the PR pundits deal with BP’s reputation issues. I haven’t commented too much because BP is longtime client in crisis communication and I and others in my company are involved in this situation–that means anything I say will be dismissed by those who disagree and I can’t be as free to comment as I would be if I was not involved.

Reuters has an in-depth article about BP’s PR blunders–a topic that seems to provide endless fascination for the PR press as well as general media. A number of excellent points are made in this article, in addition to the tiresome re-hash of supposed gaffes. For example, the oft-repeated sloppy journalism story about BP’s faulty initial flow estimates–as I pointed out before only Factcheck.org and the Rolling Stone got this right–these were estimates from Unified Command. These were government estimates. Then of course there is the statement by CEO Hayward that he wanted his life back. This is simply unfair–silly perhaps to make a comment like that when so many in the gulf would like their life back, but it seems rather obvious that he was trying to say that there are few people more eager to get the hole plugged and the oil cleaned up more than him. Still, a vitally important media training lesson. Don’t allow your CEO (or Chairman for that matter) to just talk endlessly off the cuff for hours and days on end because sooner or later they will say something that the sharks will bite on.

But while no doubt BP has made a number of serious PR mistakes, this article misses the main point. Of all the commentators on BP’s PR problems, the only one I’ve seen who got it seriously right is Eric Dezenhall. I’ve been a fan of Eric for a long time–I quoted him from his book “Nail ‘Em” quite often when I wrote my book Now Is Too Late. I learned a lot from him about the nature of the media and the truly ugly game infotainment has become.

Here’s what Eric says in the Reuters article:

“PR is not the antidote to what’s happening here. Whenever something like this happens it is a 100 percent certainty that the public relations will be deemed to be botched,” said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis PR specialist for almost 30 years,

Washington-based Dezenhall said BP’s communications efforts must be judged over the longer term.

“All of these PR chestnuts that sound wonderful in a college class, about apologizing and contrition, there is very, very weak data to show these cliches bear out in reality.”

As to where I stand, I have been doing a series of by invitation only webinars and at the end I discuss why the public opinion about BP and the spill response is so bad, considering that earlier on they were doing a pretty darn good job of communicating about what was going on (in my opinion that has deteriorated badly in the last few weeks). Here are my reasons:

1) Media blame game-it’s just the way media is done these days, particularly around big disasters where people are getting killed or hurt bad. Everyday they have to come up with something new to compete for the eyes on the screen or page and what sells is “new revelation” of dastardly deeds or incompetent failures.

2) Politics–politics is simply going to be involved in events of this magnitude. Elections are at stake. Lots of them. And this fact combined with the media blame game means all elected officials from the president to parish presidents are doing their absolute darndest to 1) avoid any of the blame game falling of them and 2) get credit for anything good that happens. In this case, BP provides a completely understandable foil for every political message related to those two point. So all the blame is going to fall on them, and all the credit will be assumed by others–and not much BP can do about it.

3) Ignorance of Unified Command–its clear that few in this country understand the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that has been driving much of the response and communications, nor do they understand the National Incident Management System or Incident Command System and the Joint Information Center concept.This ignorance has led to some very stupid things being said by politicians, by the press and by pundits.

4) The industry everyone loves to hate. All the reputation studies show that the oil industry is near the bottom of the list in public trust. So every oil company executive starts every day in a deep reputation hole. This is of their own doing in many ways, but the fact is that public opinion is not favorable to fossil fuels and getting less favorable every day–even while we consume like crazy. It’s one thing if a candy company has a crisis, its quite another if an oil company does. By the way, only the media business has a lower trust rating–how ironic.

5) Toxic talk–this is the lack of civility and decency in our public discourse, so well documented by the recent WeberShandwick study. Over 50,000 people have submitted comments to the response and to BP through the response website and BP’s state response websites. A great many have been very very negative–a disconcerting number threaten violence. It’s a sad part of our culture but it contributes to an overall attitude of animosity, venom and cultural dis-ease.

6) It’s a very very bad event–this is undoubtedly the biggest reason. The fact is that oil continues to flow as it has for over two months. It is still not stopped and the threat to people, environment and wildlife continues to grow. People cannot understand how this can happen and why it can’t be stopped. It makes everyone furious and frustrated. So, whether you are at fault or not, if you stand up and say, we are responsible you are going to take the brunt of that anger and frustration. That’s far beyond any PR fix.

7) BP mistakes–yep, there have been a number. Mistakes of omission and commission. Avoidable mistakes and a lot of “spinning” of bad information and minor gaffes. But BP cannot avoid responsibility for their situation entirely. But, like Dezenhall suggests, it makes more sense when trying to analyze this for future crises, to consider the whole picture.

I once went to a doctor who advised me if I wanted to live long that I should pick my parents carefully. If BP, or any other company wants to protect its reputation, don’t dump gazillions of gallons of oil into any water.