The latest furore which has spouted forth from the well that is the BP PR machine is going to take just as long to clean up as the black mucky mess which continues to wash up onto the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The three doctored images which were uploaded onto BP’s Gulf of Mexico response homepage this week have arguably caused more damage than some of the many other gaffes that have dogged BP’s PR efforts since the first announcement of the oil spill in May.
In fact, BP has single handedly violated almost every rule of successful public relations, starting with the first one, which is to ‘tell it all and tell it first’, they then quickly broke the second which is to ‘allow only the well trained and polished spokespeople speak to the media and public’. The problem is not that there are mistakes and crises (there always will be and there is no way around this – especially with something as hazardous as deep-water drilling). However, not all crises have to mean job losses, careers ruined, staff illness, environments destroyed and international condemnation. The problem in BP’s case is the challenges came from the poor handling of communications from the start, which are in essence, self inflicted wounds which have continued to cause injury long after they’ve been made. PR in this instance seems to have been used as a band-aid rather than a tool for getting the right messages out to the right audiences in a clear and simple manner. Public relations isn’t about exaggeration and manipulation, it’s about communicating the public what is going on within a company in a controlled manner.
As a result, BP is now fighting a PR firestorm on all fronts, from peeved shareholders, to the outraged local community who have had their livelihoods put on hold and in danger, to the US government, to vocal national and international environmental groups and to employees and health and safety unions. They are also fighting fires from the inside, trying to manage and keep a lid on its internal communication channels (including the management of some of its renegade spokespeople). This includes its (current) Chief Executive, Tony Hayward, who bemoaned recently, ‘I want my life back’ – hardly the positive PR message that BP is trying to communicate to the world audience who is watching the disaster with the grim fascination of a car wreck they can’t tear their eyes away from. In fact, it must feel like a touch of déjà vu for BP’s head of communications Andrew Gowers, former editor of the FT and also the man who incidentally manned the PR at Lehmans Brothers during their collapse.
The images, which have sparked the increase in criticism, include the cut and paste doctoring of two images of the Houston control room where BP staff are monitoring the leak and one from inside a helicopter over the Gulf. It’s called into question one of the consistent messages BP has been trying to drum home – transparency. Many are now jumping on BP’s alleged lack of transparency as an attempt to continue to manipulate versions of the truth months on from the initial disaster. BP has since now gone on the front foot to post both original and fake versions of the photos on flickr which hasn’t appeared to lessen the condemnation any further.
Perhaps the lesson or message that is most important to members of the UK financial services industry is that no one is immune. But regardless of the type of incident, if PR is used well and effectively, the damage can be limited. For as long as most can remember BP has always been viewed as an untouchable financial giant with most of the media coverage largely centring on its share prices and presence as a an international conglomerate. It has now suddenly and spectacularly spiralled into a reputational death spin which could only be described as a PR director’s worst nightmare and has seen nearly every aspect of its business criticised on the back of a protracted and seriously damaging oil leak at one of its facilities in American waters.
BP is to up their neck in this mess and there’s no telling where the next gaffe or possible reprieve will come from. The only part which is clear is that somewhere along the way PR policy got put at the bottom of the to-do list.