Saturday, June 5, 2010

What Were BP's PR Executives Thinking?

 I was out having a couple of drinks with a friend last night who runs marketing for a consulting firm. He's a bright guy and of course we started talking about BP and the Gulf and what the company and CEO Tony Hayward should and shouldn't be doing from a PR standpoint. A few of the steps it's taken:

  • Several weeks of silence during which you could hear the lawyers time clocks going Cha -Ching while they desperately tried to figure out what to do and what  to say.
  • Hired a Bush loyalist who worked at DOE as the energy corporations were creating their own regulations or lack thereof. THer next boss was Dick Cheney which I won't even bother to comment on. Suffice it to say that the environment has never been a priority.
  • A $50 million ad campaign that has BP's chairman doing too little to late. As the company has finally said it's no longer trying to plug the leak, he's out saying they're sorry and they're working on it.
Every PR expert who doesn't have BP or energy work is going to weigh in on this with some version of a crisis communications plan that fell short of what it should. That's pretty obvious.

What's not obvious and I think unexpected is the rage that ordinary Americans feel against this company and the energy industry. And the incredible similarities that President Obama has finally taken notice of between what happened in the Gulf of Mexico and what happened in the nuclear industry after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Drill baby drill has become Kill baby kill. Not in my backyard is going to become not in my ocean - no way.

It's not just the images of the oil slicked beaches and dying wildlife and people of  New Orleans and other places, lamenting the loss of their way of life. It's the mood of country. Notice how the tea baggers have been very silent since this happened. Keeping their mouths shut is all they've got. Or they'll get dragged into the oil slicked mud right behind BP.

So what should BP have done?

Don't Lie. Lying about the extent of the spill was just plain stupid. It would have been much smarter to say we don't know how bad it is, we're still trying to figure it out. Far better than saying the spill was smaller than BP knew it was. That means rich corporation caught lying to American people - not unusual perhaps, but in this situation a way to build really bad will.

Don't Spend Money that Should Be Used to Help People on Advertising.  This is just idiocy. The CEO of BP blew it already, to put him on paid advertisements just makes it worse. Better he should get himself down to the affected areas - with body guards if he needs them - and talk to the people who live there.

Let the news cover it. Donate money to the fisherman whose world has just been destroyed - create a Foundation to help their families during this time. Demonstrate you care by doing something that matters not making yourself less of a villian. Don't underestimate the intelligence of the American people - even though that's a very popular thing to do these days. Eventually they will get it.

Educate the Public About What Really Happened. BP is going to get stuck paying for the vast majority of this mess anyway. So go out and explain to the best of your knowledge what really happened otherwise it's just rumor which makes it look worse. Many companies were involved - the system failed in multiple points. Mea culpa. We didn't have a contingency plan. This may be the biggest oil spill in the history of this country and it's going to take a long time to fix it. But in the meantime, we have thousands of scientists studying what happened and making sure it will never, ever happen again. Here's what we're learning as we go.

Get Environmentalists To Help You Figure it Out - Why is BP going out and hiring all of the people who worked for the Bush administration and are in part responsible for creating a world where energy companies could operate without any rules? Bring the environmentalists to the table. Get Al Gore to the table. Get the World Wildlife Federation to the table. Just the very act of asking for help of the people who have been predicting this makes it look like BP is doing something.

Most important, BP's  advisors should be people who have demonstrated that they care about the environment we live in. Not those who sold it to the oil companies.


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