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05.18.10

How BP Secretly Buys PR

Besides a stealth TV “tourism” campaign, the oil giant is giving its local agents a blank check to “diffuse or deflect negative commentary” about the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“The beaches are clean! The seafood is fresh! And the national parks are open!” gushes a pleasant female voice, as the television commercial displays a sunbather, a trawler and huge pile of yumm—along the beautiful Gulf Coast!”

“Government agencies and local municipalities are working around the clock to protect the region’s economy and ecology. And we’ll continue working as long as it takes…,” the announcer continues before the logos for the tourism boards of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi fly up on the screen.

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One logo that wasn’t anywhere near the commercial: British Petroleum’s. Which is odd, because BP quietly paid to produce the ad, and will spend $70 million airing it and other commercials to lure tourists to the Gulf Coast. Though his company isn’t mentioned, the message mirrors exactly what BP CEO Tony Hayward has been saying in public statements: that the oil spill is contained and the Gulf Coast region can return to normal—just ignore the millions of gallons of crude oil looming over the horizon.

It’s one piece of an enormous, largely stealth PR campaign that BP has been waging over the past few weeks, according to sources across the Gulf, as the enormity of the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster sinks in.

The ground operatives in this propaganda blitz: locally-owned or affiliated companies – mostly those that either supply or own the BP stations. Specifically, while BP has commandeered the state’s tourism marketing, the oil giant wants it local marketers to buy ads, distribute flyers at their stations, hold customer appreciation days and use BP–supplied talking points to build a word-of-mouth campaign to “diffuse or deflect negative commentary” about the BP oil spill, according sources inside the oil industry.

View the BP Funded Television Ad

Video screenshot

These talking points proclaim “BP is doing everything in our power to stop the flow of oil, minimize the impact and keep the public informed,” according to communications to BP affiliates, that were shared with The Daily Beast.

More critically, BP has told its marketers that it will pay all the costs for the approved ads, flyers and postcards that are printed and distributed. Normally, BP pays only half of advertising costs‐the way a fast-food franchise and franchisee might split local marketing bills. In other words, the locals have a blank check to spread the BP gospel in their communities.

BP will continue its attempts to create an emotional hook and convince people the company really cares. According to our sources, the materials will include, as has other BP propaganda, phone numbers for people who want to join in the cleanup, or who see “injured or oiled animals.”

Mixed with the ground game is BP’s air “tourism” campaign, delivered through $70 million in television advertising. On Monday, BP announced that it is giving $25 million to Florida and $15 million each to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to run the ad it paid for and others, all designed to lure tourists back to the Gulf Coast before any BP crude oil or fish kills hit the beaches.

“We have been able to contain the spill in the vicinity of the leak and now the focus is on how we get the people of the Gulf Coast back to normal operations,” BP CEO Hayward told reporters, flanked by Florida governor Charlie Crist.

Crist seemed overjoyed at getting the funds to help hotels and restaurants in the Florida panhandle that have seen their summer reservations evaporate as the BP oil spill has dominated the national media for the past four weeks.

“I am grateful to Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, for answering our call for help and delivering the good news that BP will provide Florida an additional $25 million for a national tourism advertising campaign,” added Crist, whose state now faces a summer economic disaster, as summer vacation reservations evaporate across the Panhandle.

Here’s the trouble with the press conference: its timing was a bunch of hokum. The television spot had been in the can almost a week, posted nearly unnoticed on YouTube last Thursday. BP paid for all the ad production, but insisted that message be from the states, not BP, according to Jane Birdwell who was hired by BP to produce the ads.

“BP was very clear that the message shouldn’t be theirs,” Birdwell said. “The state tourism boards anointed the scripts and blessed them. BP just footed the bill so that it could be done quickly.

“It’s not BP saying the beaches are clean and the seafood’s safe.”

Not all locals are buying into the BP hype. Michael O’Donovan, a local environmentalist who led a previous grassroots effort against drilling off the shores of Pensacola Beach, is organizing a boycott initiative against BP.

“The procrastination and lack of immediacy by BP and our state and federal agencies seems to have lulled us into some sort of stupor that is prolonging real action, buying time for them, but not for our Gulf,” says O’Donovan. “If this crude was bubbling up through the sewers of London or near their family estates, I venture it would have been stopped weeks ago.

O’Donovan is rallying his troops again to stage a series of protests at BP stations along the Gulf Coast, as soon as this weekend.

“We will not stop until BP cleans up every barrel of its crude,” says O’Donovan. “They won’t be able to ignore us.”

Rick Outzen is publisher and editor of Independent News, the alternative newsweekly for Northwest Florida.