Carolyn's Business MK Column Sept 2010

Wed 01 Sep 2010

After weeks of screaming headlines following the terrible oil spill in the United States, BP’s appearances on our screens and in our newspapers have slowed to the occasional reminder of their continuing travails.  The tragedy of the eleven men killed in the disaster and the anguish of their families is all but forgotten, as is the peril facing the wildlife of the affected area and the livelihoods of the people who live there.  In a world with a shared sense of globally-warmed guilt we already view oil companies as barely better than drug dealers.  They give us our shameful fix of fossil fuel; we simultaneously look away in disgust from their operations and complain about the “price at the pumps.”

Today, most of the world’s other petroleum producers are keeping their heads under the covers and staying very still having spent the last few months watching BP twist and writhe, staked through the heart by the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  

To say that BP’s reputation is in tatters would be ludicrous understatement.  Instead, a business which began as Anglo-Persian Oil in 1909 has cemented a new reputation for itself as the arch-bungler, the environmental fiend, the great multi-national behemoth which carelessly allowed such disaster to strike.

How fair such characterisation may be is questionable and probably will not be unravelled until years after the spillage has been stemmed, if at all.  BP’s public relations response is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least that the campaign has been swept along beyond control by the tide of oil entering the sea.  One suspects that when it is all over, those PR practitioners charged with one of the most challenging tasks of protecting the company’s name (is there a tougher job in the business today?) will raise a glass of something to their Chief Executive, Tony Hayward.  Mr. Hayward is a shrewd man who knows that his career prospects are now about as long-lived as an oil-soaked Louisiana Pelican.  Regardless of how responsible or not he may be, he has adopted the pose of lightning conductor.  If there is criticism to be taken he takes it.  If unpalatable truths need to be aired he airs them.  If kites are to be flown or water’s tested, it is his head on the chopping block once more.  He is a dead man walking, albeit rather cheerfully.  He knows that BP’s hopes for market recovery and restoration of reputation after the spill rest largely on the timing of his departure and on how much of the guilt he can take with him.

The company is spending big to try to salvage what it can in the long term.  Type pretty much any disaster-relevant search terms into Google and you will be offered a sponsored link entitled:  BP is said to be investing a hundred thousand dollars a week on Google Adwords to ensure it gets its apologia in first.  Multiple Press Statements a day are pouring from this leak in the internet explaining the company’s response in minute detail, announcing multi-million dollar grants at every turn and to every US state in the firing line.  Sadly for those working so hard on BP’s behalf, all their efforts, all their petro-dollars will be of little effect in saving the company’s reputation.  Their grand resources are as nought when confronting the most powerful and possibly most popular man on Earth, Barack Obama.  

The President of the United States is a very modern man, but in some ways he is also a very traditional one, carved from that same stuff as many senior American Officers during the last war who were marinated in dislike for “British Imperialism.”  He has good cause.  His grandfather was imprisoned and allegedly tortured Under British rule in Kenya.  His autobiographical works are littered with little asides regarding British untrustworthiness, gloominess, arrogance and joylessness.  It is with relish he emphasises the “British” in British Petroleum when he rails against the company – a name BP has not used for almost ten years.  After all, if a US President cannot put the boot in when the man is down, when could he?

And now the vultures circle.  Rival oil giant, Exxon (itself no stranger to disastrous oil spills) is said to be planning a £100 million takeover for BP.  The redoubtable Ann Widdecombe MP smells an American rat.  Quoted in the Express she says, “If President Obama has softened up BP so it’s ripe for an American takeover, then that raises serious questions.  If that is the situation, Britain should not stand idly by.” 

It ill-behoves a Public Relations professional to say that a company is a lost cause.  If BP avoids a hostile takeover it will undoubtedly spend many billions of pounds combating the leak and its terrible impact for years to come.  It will spend a bit more ensuring that each of us gets to hear about these efforts and to see the pictures of their success.  In future BP will wear the Gulf oil spill like a grimy hair shirt, long after all the individuals involved in the event itself have left the company.  Mr. Hayward will take pride in taking as much of the blame with him as he can when he goes.  Fingers will be crossed in the boardroom that the forty-fourth President of the USA does not win a second term, a constant reminder of their fault.

The truth is, BP would not have been drilling in such a difficult location were it not for all of us.  We are uncomfortable with and suspicious of and sometimes even despise the oil companies for despoiling the world in search of black gold, but we are all junkies for their products.

Maybe we should all shoulder a little bit of blame for the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico?  Perhaps that can Tony Hayward is carrying is a little bit of each of ours?  Conceivably, President Obama might examine the figures for US energy consumption with some discomfort before completely apportioning blame.  We might all even give a moment of our time to consider the families of the eleven men who will never come home, however many billions BP spends on setting things right.

A good PR practitioner  will always insist on truth, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.  A reputation built over a hundred years will be destroyed in moments by one lie.  Remarkably and tragically in this case the truth has ceased to matter.  The name of BP, like the names of other demonised corporations like Exxon and Union Carbide, is forever cursed.  Look out for another rebranding once the cleanup is complete.

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