While there may be debate over the precise volume of oil spewing from BP’s ruptured Gulf of Mexico well, it’s safe to estimate that a record amount of arm-chair “crisis communications” slickness is spewing forth from an army (or, in this case, coast guard) of self-proclaimed PR pundits.
For example, in an op-ed piece appearing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Advice for BP’s Reputation Crisis,” pollster Peter Hart and “communications strategist” Dan McGinn listed some boiler-plate “shoulda-couldas” crisis communication clichés that sounded more like a Guy Kawaski blog post than anything actually helpful: 1. Listen for warnings 2. Speed counts 3. Be authentic. etc.
Using BP’s corporate PR armageddon as an opportunity to suggest that some sprinkling of PR pixie dust (or worse, a top-ten list of things they could have done) would minimize the radioactivity of BP’s reputation in “the public” is what gives the PR profession its reputation for slickness over substance.
So here’s my advice to such PR pundits:
1. Crisis communications may be a good hammer, but stop thinking every corporate crisis is a nail.
2. Don’t dive into another guy’s oil slick. It makes you appear slimy.
3. Not even the most brilliantly executed crisis communications plan can compete with the impact of one photo of an oil covered pelican.*
Bottomline: No amount of spin control could have, or will ever, help BP salvage the company’s or its brand’s “reputation” in the U.S. The BP brand and anyone who is associated with running the company today are like Humpty Dumpty: All the PR horses and all the PR men, won’t be able to put BP’s reputation back together again. The only debate should be over when, not if, the company should convert its U.S. operations back to the brand Amoco. My advice to them: Stop trying to convince us that oil is environmentally friendly (we’re addicted, we know it, don’t waste resources trying to convince us our addiction is a good thing) and dig out that cartoon car with the “am-a-co-gas” horn.
*Later: I wrote this post several days before the photos of oil drenched pelicans started to appear. While I regret to point to such disturbing images, these photos posted on Boston.com’s Big Picture drive home the point that I was making in this post.