Tag Archives: BP

Post mortem on BP’s PR demonstrates dangers of commenting in the dark

Bloggers like me often comment on how organizations are dealing with crises. I do often with a sense of dread knowing that I really don’t know what is going on inside and may not be aware of critical issues that are affecting the response.

That danger was highlighted to me to the extreme when I read today’s comments by Deborah Watson on PR Daily’s blog. My biggest concern is by getting the facts so wrong, the real lessons to be learned from BP’s reputation problems are missed, and therefore those interested will likely take away the wrong things.

I’ll comment on each of the five points she raises as BP’s biggest blunders. (Her comments are italicized).

1. Failure to prepare.

One of the comments made many times by analysts was how little the company seemed to be geared up to handle a crisis of this nature.

Given the type of industry, one would have thought that even the simplest analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats would have pointed to this such disaster as a possible scenario, around which the comms team should have always been prepared to respond.

However big your company, knowing your areas of crisis susceptibility is vital.

Nothing could be further from the truth. BP’s preparations were extensive, in part because they are mandatory. Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, all oil companies are required to conduct annual drills, called PREP drills, along with local, state and federal agencies. Every three years they are required to conduct a worst case scenario drill, and every so often participate in a national exercise called the SONS or Spill of National Significance. BP took preparations exceptionally seriously, including the crisis communication side. It is true, that the combination of factors that led to a uncontrolled release a mile beneath the gulf surface was not properly contemplated.

And here is the real lesson to be learned: Don’t just drill the last big event. Use your imagination, no holds barred, to envision scenarios beyond anything you think possible. This was certainly one of those. The problem was not lack of preparation, but lack of imagination. I suspect most companies have that problem as well.

2. Manipulation (or lack of true knowledge) of the facts.

In the first stages of the crisis, the company went to the press saying that the spill was only to the tune of around 1,000 barrels a day. It turned out the stat was five times the amount, but even then, company spokespeople downplayed the figure.

Knowing the facts and taking time to confirm them is imperative if you’re going to face the press to speak about your crisis. It ensures credibility from the outset. 

This is one of the greatest false accusations against BP and simply demonstrates lack of understanding of how the Oil Pollution Act works and how the Incident Command System works. Immediately after an event like this occurs (initially the event was the explosion on the platform, it was not until the platform was flooded with water and collapsed did the major spill occur) the ICS kicks in. Local, state and federal officials work directly with the Responsible Party (owner of the oil) and operate in a structure called Unified Command. UC has authority over everything, including releasing information. While all are equal, the FOSC (federal on-scene coordinator) is more equal than the others and if not satisfied can “federalize” the response. Together they are responsible for the release of information about the amount being spilled. The truth is initially the spill volume was limited for reasons I just mentioned and it was ultimately the Coast Guard Incident Commander who bore final authority for the release of the information. When BP was asked about this later, they commented that the spill volume didn’t matter in terms of the response because they treated it from the beginning as if it was unlimited. That’s the fact. They sent out a global call for all boom they could get their hands on.

There are two real lessons to be learned here: 1) Be very cautious at the early stages about any characterization of the event because the media and others (such as commentators) will be quick to use any error here to undermine your credibility. A better example of underestimating and the high cost involved is the Cosco Busan spill. Here is was really underestimated with serious reputation consequences. 2) Correct the misreports. This story went out right away about BP underestimating the volume. One discussion I had with both government communicators and BP during the event was to be much more aggressive in pointing out and correcting wrong reports and conclusions. But that violates old PR rules and they were reluctant to do that. I am more convinced than ever, and this repeated “mistake” makes it clear, that fact checking is one of the most important responsibilities of a communicator.

3. Lack of compassion.

The comments of CEO Tony Hayward have certainly gone down in history. Lives had been lost in the crisis and the implications environmentally and economically were huge for many – but he wanted his “life back.”

This comment garnered disgust and annoyance from the press and the public. Choose your messaging and your spokesperson wisely.

This one is particularly irritating to me, probably because I knew a lot of the people involved. I know how they were hurting. I know the compassion and sorrow they felt for the loss of life and for the environmental damage. And I know how hard they tried to communicate that in an incredibly hostile media and political environment.

But, at the same time I used Tony Hayward’s quote and his subsequent loss of position often in presentations and writing to demonstrate the importance of always staying on message. But blaming this on an uncompassionate company and uncompassionate CEO is just plain wrong, and again misses some very important lessons.

1. A hostile public, media and political environment. The real PR disaster that BP faced was the fact that they spilled oil into the gulf in full view of the entire world for 90 days without being able to stop it. No lipstick will make that pig look good. Then you had an administration which, determined to avoid the Katrina blame placed on President Bush, took every opportunity to heap outrage on BP–often very dishonestly. Add to this the fact that few have much sympathy for Big Oil–huge lessons in that alone. So to me the real lesson was that BP was unwilling to be more aggressive and independent in their public communication until well into the event. When I questioned them during the event about this the answer was until the spill is contained we don’t feel we can say much. But that 90 days were devastating and while the 20 years under OPA 90 prior to the spill practiced cooperative communication with government officials, the hostile approach the administration took required a much more independent and aggressive communication response.

The second important lesson is to limit the exposure of your CEO and spokesperson. I have counseled many after this that the primary face of an event of this nature should be someone in the organization who is operationally expendable. That sounds terrible. But the reason is that sooner or later something may be said that the vicious media will hang on to to hang the spokesperson and company. Hayward’s problem is that he became a bit of a media rock star, making himself visible and available on almost a 24/7 basis. Clearly he did not want to make the mistake of Exxon’s CEO in not even showing up to the scene. But that 24/7 media access meant it was only a matter of time that he would provide an out of context sound bite that would kill him. It’s a dirty shame that the context of the interview is missed. He was trying to communicate how devastating the event was to him and the company. But that one sound bite: “I want my life back” was used (abused) to create an impression of lack of compassion. All the expressions of deep concern and compassion he had previously made were lost. The lesson: use an expendable spokesperson and limit exposure time to enable them to stay completely on message.

4. Deflection of blame.

BP made a big point of the fact that the rig was owned by Transocean, and in so doing, came across as trying to deflect responsibility.

Sure, mention other parties, but in so doing, provide a shared collaborative message around how you are all doing your best to resolve matters swiftly.

For BP, it came across as if the company was trying to buy wriggle room.

This one is also very irritating. As the provider of the web-based communication system that both BP and the Coast Guard used, we were contacted very soon after the event began. In those first confusing minutes and hours it was not known exactly what happened or who was responsible. The fact is that the rig belonged to Transocean. It is an important response question because under OPA 90 (Oil Pollution Act of 1990) the owner of the oil is the responsible party. But it was quite soon after the initial event that BP assumed the actual responsibility under the Act, and launched a response website along with the Coast Guard.

One of the big lessons to be learned is there is a big difference between legal responsibility and public responsibility. The truth is, as courts determined, the spill responsibility was shared by BP, Transocean and Halliburton who supplied the failed cement. That being said, BP always and over and over and over said in their public statements that they were assuming full responsibility for the response. What became a problem was when they were called to testify to Congress. Congressional testimony is quasi-judicial and therefore would play heavily in the legal case assigning damages. So in that testimony they were far more careful in accepting responsibility and of course this was jumped on by the media despite the repeated statements of accepting full responsibility for stopping the spill and cleaning up the mess.

The lesson in this is not the BP tried to avoid responsibility, but that the legal and communication team need to work together as much as possible (before an event if at all possible) to recognize and understand the challenges this issue of liability and responsibility pose. The biggest lesson is, as mentioned above, BP should have been far more aggressive, and righteously indignant, about the reports suggesting they were ducking responsibility. The message should have been: we don’t know and we won’t know for a long time who his legally responsible, but we do know and all our actions are demonstrating it, that we don’t care about that issue right now, as we are taking full and complete responsibility to deal with this disaster.

5. Being angry and unavailable.

Many felt that BP came across as annoyed with the press interference, and that leaders were much much less available in terms of updates and commentary than they might have been.

Keeping your audience in the loop, at regular intervals, helps to no end with credibility. It shows you are keeping communication going and that you have not forgotten your level of responsibility or the fact that so many are now relying on you for answers.

I really have no idea where Ms Watson is coming from on this one. Perhaps it was the huge issue made by the press that BP was keeping responders from talking to the media. The protocol in an ICS response with a Joint Information Center operating is to have media questions directed to the JIC. When some responders on the beach told reporters they were told not to talk to them, the press incorrectly reported that BP was hiding information. In reality, BP was not controlling media access and at that time it was the White House who was dictating media messages and policy. However, the issue became severe enough that Admiral Allen, the National Incident Commander, issued a Media Policy that stated everyone can talk to the media but were to keep their comments restricted to their particular area of responsibility. The real lesson is that following this event, this is exactly the kind of media access policy that should be adopted, not the outdated one that said refer everything to the spokesperson.

BP was part of the JIC for the first month a half. Then they were kicked out of the JIC by the White House and it became, as CNN called it, “talking points from the administration.” BP always made itself available, but did not aggressively and proactively defend itself believing, incorrectly I believe, that until the spill was contained, it was best they let the government speak for the response. By that time the reputation damage was done and BP suffered under a false impression of not being forthcoming.

Again, a major lesson, particularly for private companies operating in a JIC environment, is be prepared to go independent and be prepared for the political leaders involved to inoculate themselves by aiding the media in heaping blame and outrage. It is still far better, and it would have been better all around, if the government and BP could have remained in the JIC and communicated the message that they were in it together. No such luck here. But to blame political decisions about how to best form public opinion on BP is again to misunderstand the fundamental situation.

OK, my rant is over. I do not blame Ms. Watson snor do I wish to leave the impression that I think her analysis of the PR problems is wrong. What this points out to me that without knowledge of what is really happening, and making judgments based on media reports is almost certain to lead to misunderstandings. It would be better (and this is a lesson for me as an occasional commentator on others’ crises) is to say: based on how the media reported the story, it looks like this, and given these reports, this is how the company should have or should respond.

 

 

 

 

 

Harvard study says BP’s “greenwashing” paid off

I greatly object to the obvious bias in this report on the value of “greenwashing.”  According to Wikipedia “greenwashing” is “spin” and deception.

The real point and value of this study about the impact of BP’s pre-spill advertising on its sales and reputation after the 2010 Gulf oil spill is that building reputation equity makes a huge difference when you encounter a major crisis. This is an extremely important point. Not because it supports buying expensive advertising, but because it supports the value of working hard to build reputation and trust before an event.

I call it reputation equity and liken it to a bank account. It’s a fund of goodwill and positive perceptions that will be extremely important when/if you ever face a major reputation crisis. In my other blog at emergencymgmt.com, I suggested that my emphasis in 2014 would be building that reputation equity and suggested some ways to start thinking about that. This report provides academic credence to that position and further encouragement to continue to focus on that part of crisis communication.

Crisis communication is primarily about preparation. If you’re not prepared to deal with it and communicate effectively, it’s almost a matter of just stick your head down and ride out the storm or succumb to it (like Freedom Industries in WV). But preparation is not just about putting a good plan together, creating message maps and all that–those are extremely important of course. Preparation is above all , analyzing your risks and redoubling efforts to prevent bad things from happening and then, working hard to build the trust in your key stakeholders that will be essential if/when you do face a problem.

This study doesn’t provide any information on the relationship building with key stakeholders that I think is the core of a reputation equity effort. But it does show that working hard to communicate who you are with the public prior to an event happening can pay off big time when the big event happens.

About “greenwashing.” I can understand why many believe that BP’s ad campaign “Beyond Petroleum” was deceptive. In one way it was. I don’t think it communicated, as I see with other oil companies such as Shell, that alternative and renewable energy sources are one part of the mix and that petroleum would continue to be essential. But I think this is judging the past from the perspective of the present. Even just a few years ago we were facing “peak oil” and renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal were the future. Nuclear was even getting a new look. Then fracking happened, and Fukushima and now nuclear is once again off the table and the US (amazingly) is set to become an energy exporter–at least until the rest of the world starts getting serious about natural gas. When the Beyond Petroleum campaign started I believe it was aspirational and forward thinking telling the world what BP was and that it was going to be about far more than oil. Is that greenwashing? For some, no doubt, but I think the researchers doing this study are showing their bias. It’s noteworthy that their own conclusion is that the government needs to get involved in investigating environmental claims made by companies.

Yeah, right. Because we little people are too stupid to see through the “greenwashing.” Give me a break.

 

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.

 

Legal vs PR–the BP trial highlights the conflicts between two competing courts

So BP is on trial and the news headlines are filled with stories about former BP executives testifying about the company’s putting “profits above people.” This situation highlights the often-discussed conflict between the court of law and the court of public opinion. And the often-discussed conflict between lawyers and PR folks.

The CEO and leadership of the company must make the decision when these two forces collide. Clearly Bob Dudley and the BP board have decided that winning in the court of law is more important than winning in the court of public opinion. Let’s look at this decision because as a PR person, like I suspect most PR people, my inclination is to think: how stupid can they be? Why encourage all the old outrage and hatred against their company to resurface? After spending an unbelievable amount of money to convince everyone they are doing it right in restoring the gulf after the spill, why waste the goodwill that that money was intended to generate by allowing this trial to scratch the scab off all the old wounds?

But, things are not so simple. And as we PR folks often accuse the lawyers of only looking at it from the legal perspective, we can be accused of only looking at it from the reputation perspective. According to one estimate, there is at least $17 billion at stake in this trial. 17 billion–that’s enough to pay the federal deficit for–wait, we won’t go there. 17 billion is a lot of money for even a company the size of BP. A CEO has to take numerous factors into consideration, including share value, responsibility to shareholders, and the long term future of the company. A major point of this trial is assigning blame, so there is also the consideration that when all is said and done, blame will be shared (as it has so far in the court of law far more than in the court of public opinion) between Transocean, Halliburton and others. So there is reasonable hope that a positive outcome in the trial will not only save billions, but help the public understand this was a complex event with multiple causes and multiple points of failure.

I think there is another reason why its more rational to proceed with this trial than first glance suggests: ExxonMobil. The shadow of the ExxonValdez lingers, but has been much diminished by the BP spill. You may recall that Exxon’s CEO took great heat for not showing up at the spill. BP CEO Tony Hayward, intent on not making that mistake, made the mistake of showing up too much until he was caught in an unfortunate comment. Funny thing–that comment is now tied to his name so the headlines read: Tony”I want my life back” Hayward. This is so ridiculous. But after the Exxon headlines died down then CEO Lee Raymond took a very strong anti-reputation position. It’s well known in the industry that his view was “people may hate us but they are going to keep buying our product.” So he set about continuing to build a company that would be the envy of everyone else in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and share value. He did. ExxonMobil recently regained its position, which it lost relatively briefly to Apple, as the world’s most valuable company. While many who buy its products may still have a lingering distaste over the ExxonValdez, the shareholders may be happy that the company didn’t waste too many dollars and too much effort on convincing everyone what a nice company they are.

The upshot: sometimes do we PR types make too much out of reputation? Oh my goodness, I feel like a heretic just asking that question. But, Jim Lukashevski (I’m using phonetic pronunciation rather than actual spelling which I can never get right) has made a career out of teaching PR folks to gain a seat at the table of organization leadership. One of the best ways they can do that is demonstrate they can think like a CEO and not just have a knee-jerk PR reaction to everything.

The BP trial is right now a PR disaster. That doesn’t mean Dudley and the others were wrong to refuse to settle. Time will tell.

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.

 

What? BP a winner?

 

Most would be surprised that BP these days could be a winner at anything, particularly anything related to PR or its reputation. Nevertheless, this article on Forbes.com puts BP near the very top of the list of companies leading the way in web-based communications. Written by David Bowen who prepares the Financial Times Bowens Cragg Index of corporate web effectiveness, points out that effectiveness in the web arena does not necessarily translate into overall communication effectiveness nor a spotless reputation. But, in this age of growing reliance on digital communications of all sorts, being effective in this area is a vital part of corporate communications management:

If you want evidence that a group’s website is now its most important
communication channel, go back to the spring and summer of
2010 and the Gulf of Mexico. BP made a hash of its reputation on
television, an outlet it could not control. It did well on the web because
it did control that channel and because it understood how to use
it. BP and others at the top of the Index are mature users of online
communications. Large organisations – in business or not – can learn
much from studying them.

I’ll let you do a detailed study of the Bowens Cragg Index to determine the criteria used and how BP could end up looking so good. (full disclosure–BP a client for whom we provided web communication technology and services so you can understand my satisfaction with this). Whether you agree with their conclusions and their criteria or not, this kind of in-depth analysis is incredibly helpful in understanding the landscape of web communication as it exists right now.

One important question Mr. Bowen deals with is the future of websites. With all that is happening in the app world, smartphones, social media, etc., is the corporate website already a Model T? I agree with Mr. Bowen’s assessment:

Corporates websites will not die. Unlike what some have said, they
will become more important in absolute terms. But they will be suns
at the centre of a group of planets with names such as Facebook,
Orkut, YouTube and Twitter, and satellite apps on Android, iPad
and iPhone. These last are not even based on web technology, so our
terminology may have to change.

Indeed, I used to refer to web-based technology or web communications. I find that shifting to the less precise but more inclusive “digital communications.” Whatever we call it, it seems to get more interesting, complicated and challenging every day.

 

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.

 

Daily Dog hits new low in attacks on BP–uses Vietnam execution image

Bulldog Reporter’s Daily Dog I understand is one of the most widely-read email newsletters for the communications and PR industry. But, I must tell you I am thoroughly disgusted by their story today on BP.

It’s not the content of today’s story that I object to so much. I have objected to their treatment before, not just of BP, but Toyota, Goldman and almost any other major organization caught in a media maelstrom. It is the graphic accompanying the story. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and guess that they got this off somebody else’s website–someone who clearly wants to put the company in the worst possible light. For those of you who may not know where the image comes from, it is one of the most searing, emotionally charged and disturbing images from an earlier time. In the late stages of the Vietnam war when support for the war and for our South Vietnamese ally was slowly dissolving, one of the major news magazines ran this image of a South Vietnamese general summarily executing an accused VietCong on the street. The photographer snapped the photo just as the bullet hit the man’s head, contorting his face.

If you have not seen this, I’m sorry to introduce it to you and would not if I wasn’t so outraged and disgusted by Daily Dog’s use of it. Few images I have seen have had such a profound effect, not just on me but possibly on history. It brought home the daily personal tragedies of young lives caught short and the brutality of an apparently almost effortless killing.

Apparently the editor of Daily Dog wants to communicate the message that he considers this latest effort by BP to help improve their shattered reputation to be an act of suicide. At least some homicide. Or, is he suggesting that BP is the general and is killing people? I am hoping that he/she is just young and ignorant and had no idea the associations of that powerful image on a whole generation of Americans.

I have met Jim Sinkinson, the president or owner of Bulldog Reporter, and talked with him about my concerns about the editorial management of Daily Dog. I was disgusted before when I saw how they consistently took media attacks (such as on Toyota,) then upped the outrage a good two or three notches. I commented to Mr. Sinkinson how a reputable public relations publication like this one should understand that the media’s job is to create that public outrage and what is of more interest to the PR practioners who read this is how to manage a reputation when under this kind of often unfair attack. My defense of Toyota, I should mention, was well before NASA vindicated the company and revealed the media attacks for exactly what they were–unsubstantiated inflammation. I didn’t see Daily Dog’s apology for not only taking these attacks at face value, but upping the ante on them. (Refer to previous Daily Dog stories on Toyota if you don’t believe me.)

In addition to a most distasteful and inappropriate use of a graphic, the article makes additional mistakes. It says, without reference, that the BP spill was the world’s worst eco-disaster. I don’t think so. For some reason, in part by looking at past reporting by Daily Dog, I don’t get the feeling that the writer or editor is terribly supportive of BP’s efforts to improve their reputation. It would be more helpful for a leading PR industry publication to give a little more substantive criticism on an issue of vital importance to us practitioners.

At this point in a rant like this, most would conclude by saying, “I’m cancelling my (free) subscription and never reading that rag again.” I’m tempted, but the truth is that once in a while their articles direct me to issues and topics of value. I’m hoping instead that others who may be as offended as I am by their treatment of topics like this will help encourage Mr. Sinkinson to take this issue seriously and have a little chat with his editorial staff.

Media self-criticism of spill coverage begins to emerge

This is a most heartening sign. I and a few others have complained vigorously about the media coverage of the spill. One thing I complained about was that there were no voices within the media to say, wait a minute, things aren’t quite what we are saying they are. That seems to be starting to change.

Here’s an outstanding commentary from Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel, referencing a story in the New Yorker (of all places!). I haven’t read the whole story yet since I’m not a subscriber but I’m going to run out and get a copy as soon as I can.

Thomas sums up the situation with remarkably brevity: “Much of what you saw in the media was not reality. It was a scripted show.”

That is a remarkable assessment from a member of today’s journalism cohort. Thomas explains what he means by a “scripted show.”

I recall a spill scientist, frustrated by the sensational reporting, asking me why the media continue to “believe the loudest and most radical voice.”

This was my answer: “In stories like this, we follow a template. We seek villains and doomsday scenarios because they drive the storyline. And so everything BP does is driven by evil intent.  Everything (the federal government) does is to cover up evil. We then create heroes to battle the evil. And as the information begins trickling in that contradicts the storyline, it doesn’t matter. The big tent has folded up and people have lost interest. So there is no accountability.”

Those of you who have read Now is Too Late2: Survival in an Era of Instant News, will recognize the good and evil reference–black hats and white hats. My theory has been that as news entered primetime (with 60 Minutes) it adopted the forms of entertainment that it has replaced. Specifically the dramatic form known as melodrama, with simplified story lines and audience-satisfying defeats of the bad guys. Why? Because this is what works today and the game is attract and hold an audience or go the way of (insert name of any of a thousand or ten thousand media outlets that have died recently).

Those of you who have been reading crisisblogger during the spill know how I feel about Billy Nungesser and Anderson Cooper’s infatuation with him. So I especially like this comment of Thomas:

But there was plenty of drama. CNN fell in love with Billy Nungesser, a colorful Louisiana parish president who lashed out in his Cajun accent at the feds. Oh, how the big-city media love this shtick.

So, with the New Yorker and the likes of Thomas from the Sentinel beginning to become more critical of the news coverage of the spill, I feel vindicated. But that is not the point. The most important point I have tried to make in the oil industry and executive briefings I have had the opportunity of doing in the past few months is to understand the nature of today’s media environment. This kind of analysis will help us understand it better.

Jack Fuller’s book “What is Happening to News” will help even more because he has the credibility of a major media editor (Chicago Tribune). Now, even our Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is bringing the sad state of our media to light–comparing it negatively to Al Jazeera.

For crisis communicators, understanding this environment is the beginning point of effective crisis communication strategy. If you are a big company, particularly one with already low trust ratings–like Big Oil–and something goes terribly wrong on your watch, you WILL have the black hat on. You will NOT get a fair shake. You are the TOOL by which the media will do their job of inflaming public opinion to secure ratings necessary for them to stay alive. So, what do you do about it?

The sad thing is that most crisis communication strategies rely on the tried and untrue method of pushing out press releases in the vain hope of getting their message out and getting fair coverage. That simply is not the game that is played. Yes, you must continue to deal with the media. And you must continue to work with them to try and get truth conveyed. But if you understand that their concern is not “reality” but the “scripted show” then you can deal realistically with how to communicate. And more and more that means identifying in advance those people most important to your future, establishing an on-going conversation with them in advance of anything bad happening, and then when it does happen, tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Your primarily role in dealing with the media in this view, is to monitor, then be quick with corrections and balancing information to bring some reality to their scripted show.