The Gulf (BP) Oil Spill: Why Good PR is Possible

Like most of us, I’ve been concerned and captivated by the oil spill in the Gulf, largely unable to break away from the coverage whether its Hill testimony or personal stories. For many, it is personal. You may have a tie to the region or Hurricane Katrina, passion for environmental issues or a loved one affected by the economics of the disaster. I have a brother in-law whose Master’s thesis depends on the fate of dozens of oysters sitting in the oil spill’s path.

But for public relations professionals, there’s another side to this story. If you take the emotion away and only briefly gives thanks that you’re not leading the BP PR team, there’s a fascinating case study in what’s playing out. Is it even possible to lead a strong communications strategy during a crisis like this?

Some may disagree, but the criticism that seems to bubble to the surface again and again, is that BP appears reactive. We see the words: stumbling, backpedaling, correcting, revising. This is simplified, but in my opinion a successful strategy is one where BP is a) honest and b) says and does the right things before others prompt them.

Today, Brian Merchant at Treehugger reported on a small, but fitting example of BP failing to do this. Last night at a town-hall meeting 14 year old Lauren Spaulding had the courage to ask BP executives why they haven’t done more to educate youth about the spill. She said her peers are concerned about the affects of the spill and want to know what they can do to help. Lisa Garcia, a Senior Advisor for the EPA, was there and swiftly said those efforts would get underway and BP would likely get the bill. Why didn’t someone with BP think of this first? This is an example of an educational opportunity and a positive that can come out of the spill.

There are other examples of this:

– Initially stating 1,000 barrels was leaking per day then revising it to 5,000
– Deflecting blame to Transocean when it should have been handled privately
– Lacking compassion and answers during Hill testimony, then changing their tune partially though the sessions

If BP had come out of the gate with more transparency and ownership, they may be faring better at this point. There is no way to make this disaster a complete positive, but BP has done a few things well:

– CEO Tony Hayward has given regular and some strong interviews
– Fast-moving social media program
– Releasing leak video
– Environmental efforts along coast

However, just as a type, I catch another fumble. In a new interview with the Guardian, Hayward said this about the spill: "We will fix it. I guarantee it. The only question is we do not know when. The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." Tiny? Oh please don’t let us bother you with this itty-bitty spill. And especially while some experts now believe the leak is pouring as much as 70,000 barrels a day into the ocean.

This crisis is far from over and moving fast, but if BP can think bigger and better than everyone else, they may be able to balance the bad with some good.

- Contributed by Jennifer Eberline. Follow her @jeberline