The Dirty Business of BP’s Corporate Reputation Cleanup: Examining the PR Response to the Gulf Oil Spill

By Jennifer Janviere

If the situation weren’t so catastrophic, one could almost focus on the irony: British Petroleum, one of the world’s largest oil companies, spent millions re-branding itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” the eco-friendly oil company, only to eventually be linked to one of the country’s worst environmental disasters.

Over one month since the Deepwater Horizon rig failure and millions of barrels of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, the company is still at a loss for containing the spill. The effects are already apparent in Gulf Coast communities: oil washing up on beaches, damaging both the natural landscape and the industries on which the local population depends, such as fishing and tourism.

How does a company respond to a devastating crisis with such long lasting implications for so many people? Immediately following the rupture, BP sprung into action, attempting to settle for damages with the people of the Gulf Coast. The company offered residents a cash settlement in exchange for residents and businesses waiving their right to later sue the company, that is, until this was quickly halted by a U.S. District Court and the Alabama Attorney General.

As events of the oil spill continued to unfold, BP has also attempted to minimize the severity of the spill. Spokespeople initially stated to the media that the leak was around 210,000 gallons every day (5000 barrels). In a later report by the New York Times, however, the company admitted in a private meeting that the figure could be as high as 4.2 million gallons (100,000 barrels) every day. For those of us who have trouble imagining this number,  a infographic on PBS.org tangibly demonstrates this statistic.

Additionally, company CEO Tony Hayward compounded the problem with remarks to the press that anyone hearing could easily perceive as blunt and unconcerned. “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,” he is quoted as saying to the UK Guardian.

According to Daily Finance.com and Michael Cherenson, head of Success Communications Group, Hayward is “breaking some of the basic rules of reputation management” by being “arrogant and confrontational.” Cherenson, a public relations professional, states that the way to recovery from such reputation damage is to listen to the dialogue more than to talk. The company could also extend goodwill by sending response teams to begin the long clean-up process and by admitting responsibility for its actions. So far, they’ve done neither.

To state that BP’s reputation has been tarnished is an understatement. The slow, ineffective response draws comparisons to the company’s actions during the notorious 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Apparently, they’ve learned very little from past mistakes.

At the very least, this situation reveals a flawed attempt to brand an oil company as “environmentally friendly.”  In retrospect, the company’s partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and its “Beyond Petroleum” slogan seems illogical. The very nature of its business model centered around non-renewable fossil fuels will always keep it at odds with environmental preservation.

At the worst end of the spectrum, this shows the American public (and the world) the dangerous impact of our energy consumption habits with a disaster which is sure to have lasting and damaging consequences.

Even the best public relations team will have a tough time cleaning up this mess.

Jennifer Janviere is a multimedia specialist and instructor in the Diederich College of Communication.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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