beyond the press release


PR Is No Substitute For The Truth

When I wrote a column about BP last month, I wasn't expecting to a) eat my words, or b) write about BP again so soon.

But alas, here we are.

At the time of my column, "Advice To BP That It Didn't Ask For," I and several PR peeps felt that BP had been transparent, genuinely not at fault and were doing the best they could in the terrible circumstances à la "it was all Transocean's fault Ma, honest."

I hate being wrong but we were wrong. Very wrong.

It's hard to feel sorry for liars. It's even harder to feel sorry for those people and companies that deliberately mismanage information and mislead the public for financial gain (hello, Goldman Sachs).

But what is absolutely sinful about BP's actions -- and there are many -- is the company's blatant disrespect for our intellect, for our country and for our lives. You may feel I'm getting off PR-focus here, but the fact remains that when a company tries to sustain a sheen of purity in the midst of massive oil slicks, toxic shrimp and environmental seppuku, PR and "positioning" is no substitute for the truth.



We believed Tony Hayward and we believed BP. But they lied to us and to themselves.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Taking back what I said a month ago, no amount of full-page mea culpas pasted in all the country's major broadsheets will change public perception right now -- or anytime soon. In fact, these ads may just have the reverse effect when you consider the millions being plundered from fixing the problem, and being diverted to the "We're going to fix this" ad campaign instead. I don't buy it and no one else should either.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

It appears that no one believes anything that BP has to say, tweet or print anymore, and that it has lost all credibility and control of its brand.

Case in point? A new Twitter account called BPGlobalPR, a satirical send-up of BP's blunders. With 130,000 followers and counting, it quickly provides a sense for the level of mistrust and hatred that is cursing through America's veins, online and off. When compared with the 12,000 followers on BP's feed, BP-America, it's clear that people have tuned out from the grimace-inducing comments issued by BP, much preferring comments like "Money can't buy happiness. But Tony Hayward did buy a giant yacht he calls 'Happiness'. It has a frickin' helicopter pad on it!" and "Flew in a ton of seafood from Asia last night, ate almost half of it and slept for 12 straight hours. What a weekend! #bpcares" on the faux BP blog.

So now that almost everyone knows about BP's misinformation strategy, I tried to imagine what Thomas Friedman or John Stossel would have to say about the company. Sadly, neither were available for comment when I contacted them last week, so I have taken a creative liberty in recreating their imagined responses:

Friedman: It's hard to discuss the current crisis without some measure of hyperbole, so I won't even try to avoid it: BP represents all that is soulless and unholy about the energy industry.

Stossel: C'mon Tom. That's a bit much. They're just a business (OK, a giant, globe-encompassing, multibillion-dollar quarterly profit kind of business) trying to meet demand for its product. And with any business (to paraphrase my good buddy Rand Paul) sometimes s#*! happens.

Friedman: You're right about one thing: the demand for BPs product is the root problem. And if there's a silver lining to any of this, it's that we Americans are being confronted with a visceral example of what our addiction to oil is producing, which may (fingers crossed!) lead us to making real changes.

Stossel: So if this is just a natural byproduct of the business of oil production, why is everyone so up in arms about the corporate response? Why can't BP just say, "Our bad, we'll fix it, now just leave us be."?

Friedman: John, this is clearly a case for greater oversight and tighter regulation. Have you forgotten that BP accounted for 97% of all 'egregious and willful' safety violations in the last 3 years? This speaks to their image problem as well; the public is watching a CEO making just under $1 million in annual salary whine about wanting his life back when the consistently slipshod operations of his company have cost thousands of Gulf coast residents their livelihoods.

The Biggest Liar(s)

I tend to side with my fictitious Tom Friedman. There is genuine public resentment toward BP, and it's not being driven by political rhetoric or simple financial envy. It comes from the same place as the outcry following 2008's financial crisis: from a massive breach of trust, from incredulity at the lack of urgency being demonstrated, from persistent profit-taking while others suffer, and yes, from a latent guilt, knowing that our appetites put us in a position where these behemoth corporations can take full advantage of us.

These are basic, raw reactions on the public's part -- and they are legitimate. No amount of spin will counter them.

So BP, really: the truth shall set you free. Honestly. Trust me.

2 comments about "PR Is No Substitute For The Truth".
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  1. Philip Herr from Millward Brown, June 9, 2010 at 7:41 a.m.

    Hi Vanessa, while I love your perspective, I have a different point of view. I don't want to be seen as an apologist for BP, but to offer a different opinion. Right now we are all feeling rage and helpless at the situation and directing it towards BP as the cause. Certainly understandable and justified. However, there are two additional things to keep in mind: For all their faults leading up to this catastrophe, they probably are doing as well as anyone in trying to control this. King Canute was unable to stop the tides -- why do we think Tony Hayward can stem the flow of crude? The second point is that anger and frustration is feeding on itself. The media are making this the only story (let alone the lead) and consequently it has drowned out everything else we might be concerned about. Adding to this, our president has seen the need to castigate BP in order to offset his falling ratings. (I had higher aspirations for him). So, within this context, who can speak for BP other than themselves? They need to get their side of the story out and I support them on that count. After all, which reporter or columnist would be so bold (unwise?) to give them a fair shake in a poisonous environment? Why, if BP were to present us with a cure for cancer or a formula for world peace at this point we wouldn't listen because we are so deaf to their story. So they must continue to speak in a reasoned tone until the hatred abates and just anger is left. Perhaps then there will be an opportunity for a reasoned discussion.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 9, 2010 at 11:58 a.m.

    1. This could been prevented by various ways and BP did not do it. The spill and everything including paying taxes that were lost from the small municipalities to the feds is owed by BP, Haliburton and Transocean. Risk-reward: Capitalism. They risked the world's future - they lose. 2. The closed meetings of the prior administration MUST be opened while the perpetrators are still alive. Solitary for the rest of their lives plus giving back (regardless of who has control now as in family member prosperity) EVERY penny of from what they profited. 3. As the Admiral in charge was asked at a White House press conference why the federal government hasn't replaced BP's efforts to stop the leak, he responded "With what?" BP is not a U.S. company and our government does not own equipment and the expertise of an oil company. Capitalism, remember? 4. The U.S. and Great Britain (and whoever else) needs to come together in not allowing BP to be sold or declare bankruptcy. Anybody wonder what they have stashed in the Caymans and other countries' banks or even laundered funds including personal? .......BP supporters need to take a physical dip in the oil covered gulf. Then take some crap home with them to fill their bathtubs to support BP's clean-up efforts.

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