Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Case of Bad PR, with Inane Analogies; Is BP’s CEO Being Guided by a Misguided PR Department?

In an interview with the Guardian yesterday, BP’s CEO Tony Hayward described the oil gushing from that failed well in the Gulf as “relatively tiny” compared with “the very big ocean.” I reacted with indignation to that statement because, just one day earlier, scientists from Purdue and elsewhere--working independently of one another, and using sophisticated analysis of seafloor video--had rejected BP’s estimate of the leak at 7,000 barrels a day, with some saying that it was at least 10 times larger, implying an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every 4 days since the April 20 accident!

Mr. Hayward made a similarly misplaced and ill-advised statement earlier this week on NPR when, in an interview with “All Things Considered,” he analogized the oil well disaster to the Air France accident last year off the coast of Brazil. As the fast worsening and out-of-control situation in the Gulf has demonstrated unambiguously, an oil well blowout in extremely deep water, howsoever improbable, can have catastrophic consequences for the marine and coastal environment, in addition to wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of a big swath of the population and threatening the safety of seafood from that region for years to come. In comparison, the direct and long-term consequences of the Air France tragedy--as in the case of any other air accident--were infinitesimal and mundane, except for friends and relatives of those killed.

One thing that I stress in my workshop on How to disarm and neutralize one’s critics and detractors without being offensive or disrespectful is that following a high-profile misstep, blunder, or accident, any statement by the company’s execs that flies in the face of clear evidence and thus insults the public’s intelligence will do irreparable harm to the firm’s image. I’m afraid Mr. Hayward’s above comments and farcical analogies will only serve to heighten millions of Americans’ disdain for BP, and make the company even more of a target for scorn and derision, especially among those who attach deep importance to the health of our oceans and marine wildlife.

BP and its PR department would be far more successful in their efforts to disarm and neutralize critics if they pursued the techniques used by such eminent “disarmers” as then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, then-IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, and then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, all of whom were adept at neutralizing their critics when things were going south.

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