beyond the press release


Advice To BP That It Didn't Ask For

Dear BP,

Here's some advice you haven't asked for.

Yours truly,
The PR Industry

That's the column I would have written if I hadn't decided to take another tack. You see, writing a column can be a solitary affair, and exceptionally polarizing when tackling big issues. The impulse to take a position -- the more incendiary the better -- and hammer it home is powerful when composing in a vacuum (I imagine this is how, say, Ann Coulter feels on a regular basis).

But it's an inherently limited process, and yields a limited viewpoint. So with something as topical, heated and broad-reaching as BP's Gulf Oil Spill, I decided to open up the dialogue by inviting other brains to take part in what I consider an important discussion about a substantial PR crisis. Though there are significantly more pressing issues surrounding the spill (ask an Appilachicola oyster or the guy that makes a living farming them), this column will focus solely on BP's handling of the spill from a PR and communications perspective.



I invited PR industry and marcomm experts to share their views on the BP's actions -- good and bad. The interviews printed below were insightful and well-reasoned, but the overall result of my invitation was disappointing. Of the 46 responses I received from PR experts, only these four PR professionals offered meaningful commentary. The rest were either incoherent or self-serving babble -- no wonder BP hasn't solicited any advice from those "experts."

But they would be well served by listening to Brad Burns, Mark Tardiff, Rene Henry, and Dan Baum.

Brad is a principal at Revoltion and a former SVP of Corporate Communicaitons with MCI/Worldcomm; Mark is the Associate Director of College Communications at Unity College; Rene is the author of Communication in a Crisis, and Dan is CEO and Creative Director of DBC PR+New Media. My interview with them begins:

Gentlemen, how do you think BP is handling the current crisis, from a PR perspective?

Brad: I believe BP has been doing as good of job as possible considering the terrible circumstances. They appear to be communicating as openly as possible with the facts and their CEO has been onsite of the spill and in Washington, DC, making the types of commitments a company should - taking responsibility (as painful as it is) and, at least so far, committing to doing what's right.

Rene: I agree with Brad. BP, in my opinion, has done everything by the book. They accepted responsibility and said it was their fault. They said they would make full restitution and were responsible for all costs. The company apologized. And the executives showed remorse for the victims. The executives have been available and accessible to the media. Unfortunately, however, the public does not have any sympathy for BP nor does the company have believability credibility.

Mark: The company doesn't have any credibility because, from a messaging standpoint, BP was in trouble from day one. Right out the gate, BP was put on the defensive, and for good reason - this is the worst-case scenario for an oil company that has been a major player in off-shore drilling and has a marketing campaign dedicated to the company's concerns for the environment (Beyond Petroleum). Instead of looking like a confident company with the reins in the leadership team's hands, BP came out saying they would take help from anyone who had an idea. While admitting fault for an accident is clearly a step in the right direction, taking a "beats me" approach to this crisis diminished the company's authority and ability to handle the situation. The company faced a huge credibility issue when it transpired that initial estimations of the amount of leaking oil were significantly off.

Rene: Yes, there was a tremendous underestimation of the amount of spill. But while this could have been an honest mistake, many are now challenging BP for withholding information. In my opinion, it was an honest mistake and not a deliberate false statement.

So we're split as to whether BP's done a good PR job or not. In a perfect world, what should they have done?

Dan: BP needed to react quickly to the spill, share the facts with the public and make two promises: 1) that BP's efforts would be transparent during this crisis; and 2) that BP would seek to limit damage to the environment and stop the flow as soon as possible. While the rig might not have technically been BP's, putting your CEO on TV to play the "it's not entirely our fault, but we'll handle it anyway" card is not the best way to win over the public. It comes down to taking responsibility, and BP should have done so immediately -- without any caveats.

Mark: BP should have been more effective in developing key recovery messages each day for media and other interested parties. These need to be posted to official web sites, and offered to government and industry partners. These messages should include several positive attributes about the effort and remedies being pursued. Furthermore, BP should develop an interpersonal blog to funnel positive stories of recovery efforts, making sure to assign staff to monitor this blog, though tread lightly with regard to removing material that is critical of the company. It is better to correct false or inflammatory information than remove it, though exceptions will arise.

Okay, so what should BP do going forward?

Brad: This is the real question. BP must remain committed to communicating openly and honestly and take the steps necessary to create an outcome that not only restores the environment but takes care of those people impacted by the spill. Regular press briefings are a must to maintain as much public and Wall Street trust as possible. The CEO remaining visibly engaged in the day-to-day clean up is important too. And don't forget about BP's employees. It's often forgotten by big company management just how much employees care, want to help, and want to know "what it means for me." Keep them informed directly. Don't rely on the media to communicate to them for you.

Mark: BP should partner with key media and place realistic restrictions on them, and look for opportunities to cover aspects of the recovery effort. These might include locating volunteers who have been vetted by the communications department, often those who have positive relationships with crew. Ensure that personal information about employees, particularly those who have been injured, is forwarded first to legal and then keep a dialogue with them about liabilities and restrictions. Create a dialogue with environmental groups and other stakeholders in the outcome, continually asking them for their assessment of the ongoing recovery efforts. Try to enlist some of them to share their positive observations about ongoing efforts with select media.

So there you have four fine PR minds and four subtly different takes on BP's current crisis.

As for me, I fall into the "they could be handling this a whole lot worse" camp. I agree with Brad and Mark that having BP's CEO out there on the ground is a key and commendable aspect of the company's communications response. BP also managed to avoid one of my pet peeves: evasion. There was no opportunity for the petro-giant to "no-comment" the issue, and they were pretty quick about accepting both fiscal and ethical responsibility. But they need to keep up the mea culpas, and continue to be as up front as possible concerning their search for a solution. The blowback for the company will be immense if in the future someone discovers they could have done something more to alleviate the crisis, so it's important to keep the public aware of any and all efforts underway.

That's my bit of unsolicited opinion, BP. Be sure to respond soon!

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