The late public-relations honcho for a big petrochemical company once told me that he knew it was time to retire when, after a spill, the CEO's first call was to him: “Get up here, Harry, we’ve got a PR problem.”
The PR implications of the spill weren’t lost on Harry. But he felt the diagnosis of the spill as a “communications matter” was a bad omen. A PR problem? There was toxic waste to clean up! A grizzled veteran of environmental misfortunes, Harry knew there was no way to spray perfume on an oil slick.
If BP doesn’t make quick progress in the Gulf of Mexico, “Beyond Petroleum” may become the corporate cousin of “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.”
“This is the legacy of Valdez,” Harry sighed, referring to the colossal 1989 Exxon spill in Prince William Sound, which had happened a few years earlier. “The spin.”
In an irony that Harry-the-corporate-PR-chief would have appreciated, no oil company has been more image-conscious than British Petroleum, which now faces its own catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. In the post-Valdez era, BP has spent in the hundreds of millions of dollars positioning itself as an alternative energy company. Its motto is “Beyond Petroleum.” Its logo is a sunflower. Its thematic color is green.
You can’t accuse BP of not differentiating themselves from other oil companies. But in an age when the media cover one crisis as two stories—the crisis itself and the alleged mishandling of the crisis—BP’s marketing program will surely bring them more withering scrutiny than Exxon ever faced.
One of the recurrent—and false—storylines of post-Valdez media coverage was that Exxon didn't take swift action after the spill. Emblematic of this narrative was that it took six days for Exxon's CEO, Lawrence Rawl, to release a statement, and more than two weeks for him to travel to Prince William Sound.
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• Samuel P. Jacobs: BP’s Looming Legal BattleNo question, Rawl should have gotten there sooner. But anyone who traffics in the cliché that an on-time arrival and photo-op by the Exxon boss would have defused the outrage associated with one of the worst manmade ecological disasters in history has never been in an unspinnable quagmire.
For one thing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the spill’s “remote location—accessible only by helicopter and boat—made government and industry efforts difficult and tested existing plans for dealing with such an event." Exxon spent $2.2 billion on the cleanup and voluntarily paid $300 million to Alaskans affected by the spill. Three years later, after the Coast Guard declared the cleanup complete, a court commended Exxon for coming forward "with its people and its pocketbook and doing what had to be done under difficult circumstances."
Exxon wisely didn't do much to celebrate its cleanup efforts. They viewed the cleanup as being necessary given their responsibility for the disaster. It never occurred to the company that a valentine from Greenpeace was in their future. Exxon's "image" suffered (to the extent that an oil company's image can suffer), but their stock didn't get hurt too badly and steady growth followed. The company now wins awards for their tanker safety programs, but you don't get media puff pieces for the crises you avert, and Exxon knows it.
In recent years, BP has faced crises, too—including a plant explosion that killed 15 and a ruptured Alaskan pipeline that released 200,000 gallons of oil onto Alaska's North Slope. The intense criticism taught the company that its green-PR campaign did not earn them a "trust bank" to borrow against. In fact, Greenpeace, enraged over BP’s investments in its image over alternative energy, awarded its CEO a faux “Oscar” for “Best Impression of an Environmentalist.”
The perceptual canyon that divides a pristine image from its base reality is the stuff of endless late-night comedy riffs, not unlike a family values-preaching Republican senator desperately spinning his "wide stance" in an airport men’s room. If BP doesn't make quick progress in the Gulf of Mexico, "Beyond Petroleum" may become the corporate cousin of "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED."
Irony isn't good for business, and pristine images can quickly become leaky vessels. Just as consumer-products companies have discovered the risks of investing too heavily in iconic superstar golfers who endorse their products, industrial corporations need to revisit their curious embrace of flower power.
Two decades after Valdez, Exxon's decision to make over its tankers as opposed to its image may prove to have been a shrewd exercise in damage control. BP, on the other hand, now risks being hoisted upon its own sunflower petard.
Going forward, BP will have to embrace the idea that it is playing a long game. The company will be forced to endure penance not only for the spill, but paradoxically for the sunflower. In the short term, anything its executives do will be judged insufficient, enduring the talking heads being part of the postmodern crucible.
But over the long haul, companies like BP can recover once they find the right balance between good business sense, fundamental decency, and the acute limitations of public relations.
Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.