07.25.10

Exit Hayward: BP's PR Debacles

The oil giant's disgraced CEO Tony Hayward is reportedly hours away from resigning. Eric Dezenhall on the company's latest misguided efforts at spin.

In the past week, BP has gotten nicked twice for visual legerdemain, allegedly using doctored photos to show more bustling rapid-response activity in the Gulf of Mexico than there really is. 

This curious development begs the questions: How could this happen? And shouldn’t they know better by now? These and other self-flagellating questions are certain to be asked in the wake of the apparent departure of CEO Tony Hayward.  

The short answer is that in age of the metastatic media crisis where catastrophes are adjudicated as “public relations problems,” frantically conjuring text and images to shove into the digital vortex becomes the No. 1 goal of those in damage-control hell. It’s all about providing the electronic monster its short-term jones and has little to do with a long-term reckoning in the karmic sense. 

These days, stories need not be true, they need only be plausible and resonant.

Once a crisis goes into hyper-speed, the spin priesthood, whose origins were in the archaic age of the “news cycle” (remember that term?), hasn’t a clue about how to catch up. It’s not because flacks are dummies, it’s because the physics have changed. PR techniques, as we have come to know them, are akin to using a beach umbrella to provide shelter from a hurricane.  

The very characterization of the BP oil spill as a public-relations disaster places undue emphasis on fighting awful images (think oil-drenched sea birds) with promising ones (busy-as-beavers clean-up crews).  

I highly doubt that BP’s photo mischief was a formal strategy authorized by management, but that’s precisely the point: Somebody, somewhere in this company, which takes its image fetish to jaw-dropping extremes, felt searing pressure to feed a beast with a bottomless appetite. 

Like professional athletes taking steroids, newsmakers—and “new media”—have concluded that funny business is good business, or at least worth the risk. Indeed, dubious data points aren’t limited to BP; they’re fast becoming the coin of the realm. These days, stories need not be true, they need only be plausible and resonant.  

We see incarnations of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” everywhere, and without consequence. Websites definitively announce the death of Fidel Castro and when proven wrong are punished by record “hits” the next day about Lindsay Lohan’s antics. News outlets routinely announce with authority the terms of Tiger Woods’ divorce. They’re consistently wrong, but so what? The fix doesn’t need to cure you, just carry you over. 

The onset of every new crisis, from Toyota to Apple’s antenna-gate, is now followed by the revelation of a supposedly telltale what-did-they-know-and-when-did-they-know-it email or memo claiming to certify management’s malfeasance. The data are not necessarily falsified, but nor are they meaningful. Any text and images serve as proxy for proof.

Anyone can claim (especially anonymously) to be a selfless whistleblower, and routine correspondence raising questions about a product’s safety or efficacy is easily mischaracterized as being explosive by virtue of the fact that it, well, exists. Fact is, every pharmaceutical company has exhaustive records about all of their products showing side effects and other reservations. Such correspondence is a sign of robust debate, not corruption. 

Indeed, the very existence of a memo or email is cited as de facto proof of a conspiracy. My favorite example of this was a newspaper headline several years ago—based, of course, on a leaked memo—that read something like “Microsoft Hired PR Firm to Influence Media.”  

Well, yeah. 

One of the centerpieces of the Enron drama was the widely cited fake trading floor allegedly concocted to fool the company’s customers that lots of cutting-edge stuff was taking place when it really wasn’t. Of all the mischief Enron was shown to have engaged in, the trading floor Potemkin Village was ultimately debunked and dismissed by the prosecution as a viable point of attack.  

During the Salem Witch trials, the mechanism of using alchemy to convict a much-loathed target was known as “spectral evidence,” which consisted of linking vague phenomena—such as tantrums thrown by bratty children—to exposure to an accused witch. As Anatole France wrote in Penguin Island, “As proofs, forged documents, in general, are better than genuine ones first of all because they have been expressly made to suit the needs of the case, to order and measure, and therefore they are fitting and exact.”  

Except, of course, if you are a universally loathed oil company and everything you do will endure ferocious scrutiny, not to mention be automatically dismissed as a misguided PR stunt independent of its merits. 

Some of the data battles in our cut-and-paste era—the Mel Gibson recordings and the Shirley Sherrod video come to mind—take weeks to fully play out. Some feed-the-media stunts will work, others will backfire. There is no concrete lesson here—other than the ease with which we can edit narratives to conform to our agendas will remain very seductive. 

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.