You can’t plug up BP’s gushing problems with PR and “crisis communications”

humpty dumpty

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.

  • SO TRUE! The focus should ALWAYS be on making the best decisions and doing what's right, because the positive p.r. will develop from that. Bad decisions will bring what they deserve – bad press. Window dressing doesn't hide the mess inside.

  • What about Toyota? After a massive recall, the company was able to leverage crisis communications via multiple channels, including social media, to win back customers and post sales. It seems the company has rebounded, and that crisis actually hit Americans that don't live near the Gulf Coast (nationwide effect). I understand the environmental impact of the oil spill is devastating, but I think comparisons can be made. BP has a long road ahead, but its reputation is salvageable.

  • Unlike, BP's, Toyota's situation was, indeed, a classic “crisis communications” problem, one they terribly mishandled at first (as all companies typically do) and finally started digging out of by apply crisis communications 101 lessons. Their reputation has not be salvaged, however. Their reputation for quality, earned over a couple of decades, has been permanently undermined. Only history will tell how well they “salvaged” one of the most valuable assets of the Toyota franchise.

    Moreover, Toyota's “crisis” involved primarily a specific group of people: Toyota customers. Sure, I don't want to be run into by an out-of-control driver of a Toyota, but I wasn't directly impacted. So their communications with their existing and potential customers — along with regulators and dealers and other direct stakeholders — are where their communications challenges lay.

    Unlike Toyota, BP is at the center of a disaster that is far greater than any “communications crisis.” Their disaster is akin to having a Hurricane named “Hurricane BP.” And while I don't “live” near the beautiful white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, I and tens of millions of others vacation there regularly. And while I don't live in Louisiana, like tens of millions of Americans, my favorite fish and seafood come from that region. And as my original post suggests, the visual impact of an oil-soaked pelican has nothing to do with “region” — such imagery is akin to the people who were left behind in New Orleans after Katrina. They are photos that tell a story no words can overcome.

    BP isn't suffering from a PR problem — this is a disaster narrative that we already know will play out in such a way that we will learn one day, could have been avoided if a few BP executives and friendly government regulators had made the correct decision, instead of the expedient or less-costly (at the time) decision.

    But beside all of that: To suggest BP has the ability to “manage” communications in a situation like this is to deny common sense. BP can't cap a stream of oil continuously billowing out of a pipe — so how do you expect them to cap negative publicity that is billowing out with it, as well.

    To suggest there is some crisis PR pixie dust that can help them “manage” the situation is the same as suggesting there are some “words” that can plug the oil hole — that somehow the hole will feel sorry for BP and stop gushing because it has been convinced that BP is “trying” to plug it.

  • Unlike, BP's, Toyota's situation was, indeed, a classic “crisis communications” problem, one they terribly mishandled at first (as all companies typically do) and finally started digging out of it by applying crisis communications 101 lessons. Their reputation has not be salvaged, however. Their reputation for quality, earned over a couple of decades, has been permanently undermined. Only history will tell how well they “salvaged” one of the most valuable assets of the Toyota franchise.

    Moreover, Toyota's “crisis” involved primarily a specific group of people: Toyota customers. Sure, I don't want to be run into by an out-of-control driver of a Toyota, but I wasn't directly impacted. So their communications with their existing and potential customers — along with regulators and dealers and other direct stakeholders — are where their communications challenges lay.

    Unlike Toyota, BP is at the center of a disaster that is far greater than any “communications crisis.” Their disaster is akin to having a Hurricane named “Hurricane BP.” And while I don't “live” near the beautiful white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, I and tens of millions of others vacation there regularly. And while I don't live in Louisiana, like tens of millions of Americans, my favorite fish and seafood come from that region. And as my original post suggests, the visual impact of an oil-soaked pelican has nothing to do with “region” — such imagery is akin to the people who were left behind in New Orleans after Katrina. They are photos that tell a story no words can overcome.

    BP isn't suffering from a PR problem — this is a disaster narrative that we already know will play out in such a way that we will learn one day, could have been avoided if a few BP executives and friendly government regulators had made the correct decision, instead of the expedient or less-costly (at the time) decision.

    But beside all of that: To suggest BP has the ability to “manage” communications in a situation like this is to deny common sense. BP can't cap a stream of oil continuously billowing out of a pipe — so how do you expect them to cap negative publicity that is billowing out with it, as well.

    To suggest there is some crisis PR pixie dust that can help them “manage” the situation is the same as suggesting there are some “words” that can plug the oil hole — that somehow the hole will feel sorry for BP and stop gushing because it has been convinced that BP is “trying” to plug it.