BP‘s third effort to cap the destroyed Deepwater Horizon well seems to have been successful, as pressure tests have not done further damage to the emergency mechanisms. As of posting (the afternoon of 16 July), the BP Global website stresses the cleanup of the Gulf without immediate mention of the successful capping done yesterday. Discussion of the cap is found via the link “Gulf of Mexico Response Homepage.” Such an improvement in the situation might deserve mention on each and every page of BP Global’s site, but this post is not going to question BP’s website design. Nevertheless, the successful capping of the well (touch wood), serves as a telling moment to skim some of the thoughts that have been shared about BP’s myriad PR blowouts since the disaster happened. Perhaps the best known of those is @BPGlobalPR as led by @BPTerry and Leroy Stick. We have often encouraged our readers to follow them through this disaster, at least to enjoy some black humor (and offer donations) through the crisis. But many in the communications and media arena have responded to the ways BP has tried to marshal the PR gaffes and crises it keeps finding itself in – the most recent of which are allegations that BP influenced the British Government to allow the only Lockerbie Bomber held in Britain to return to Libya in an effort to secure an off-shore drilling contract with Quadafi. What ‘lessons’ can be learned from these fiascoes?
The most important issue – the one that underlies all the PR problems to company faces – is the appalling safety record BP has been accumulating over the last 6-8 years. An excellent report by Sarah Lyall, Clifford Krauss and Jad Mouawad for the NewYorkTimes.com shows the many human and environmental disasters the company has been a part of over the last few years, as well as the ones that just missed being so. Their conclusion is that although the major energy-producing companies take risks, BP saw itself as a cutting-edge company ready to take the most dangerous jobs, and as a company that could shave costs by shaving review and safety procedures:
Mr. Dudley, the BP executive overseeing the gulf response, said it was unfair to blame cultural failings at BP for the string of accidents. “Everyone realized we had to operate safely and reliably, particularly in the U.S., to restore a reputation that was damaged by the accident at Texas City,” he said. “So I don’t accept, and have not witnessed, this cutting of corners and the sacrifice of safety to drive results.”
[Representative Henry] Waxman, whose committee is investigating the Deepwater Horizon accident, has a very different view. When Mr. Hayward testified a month ago, the representative upbraided him: “There is a complete contradiction between BP’s words and deeds. You were brought in to make safety the top priority of BP. But under your leadership, BP has taken the most extreme risks.”
A similarly encyclopedic study of the PR damage control that BP has never quite gotten a hold of has been written by Ian Capstick of PBS/MediaShift.challenges BP’s handlers and handling, but points out that BP probably was no worse than any other similar corporation faced with such a crisis: “It’s become all too easy to knock around the communicators at BP. The harsh reality is most major corporations and organizations would have reacted in the same textbook manner. This spill has changed the way communicators will plan for and execute strategies around crises of all kinds. New questions are being asked and long-held assumptions are being challenged.”
Mr. Capstick presents five points of consideration that are food for thought for all those interested in marketing their brands and delving into the new world of social media. We want to call attention to No.4:
The old paradigm of broadcasting to persuade is being challenged. BP’s communicators took to YouTube and created what seemed like television ads. They would have been better served by attempting to stimulate a conversation, providing a realistic portrait of the work being done, or engaging in a live, viewer-centric Q&A session. Overall, the BP website and spokespeople lacked a human or colloquial tone.
Social media is about interaction, not proclamation, and BP never learned that lesson at any point during its many press conferences and blunders. When Tony Haywood stated he ‘wanted his life back,’ he was living in a world in which CEOs spoke and audiences listened. That world does not much exist any more. Indeed, for a poignant counterpart, see Steve Jobs’s press conference today about issues with the iPhone antenna. Yes, Apple has done some pretty old-school strongarming as well (the deletion of the Discussion Group about the issue at its website being the most egregious). But its savvy corporate staff quickly realized that gathering facts, admitting issues, moving ahead of the media’s story, and finishing with a Q & A would do wonders for the company and for iPhone sales.
Well, Tony Haywood is no Steve Jobs. And perhaps, as Ian Capstick points out, a company just has to accept that it has lost the PR battle. Indeed, the willingness of BP spokespeople to return time and again to get bloodied in the media boxing ring might have been the strangest phenomenon (and perhaps the best evidence of how out-of-touch they truly were with the new media realities) of the whole debacle. Of course, 99.99% of the world’s business and mission-based organizations work on smaller scales than BP, but who can afford NOT to appreciate how quickly new media can turn a misstep or an ill-timed statement into a viral communications crisis? But the good news could be that a deft and honest use of new media can (re)build trust and engagement.
Ian Capstick’s great post ends with links to fifteen other articles that ponder BPs interactions with the media. Ours ends with a wish for a safe and happy weekend.