As the author of ‘Public Relations Disasters’, I know that the critical commentary about BPs handling of its Gulf oil spill guarantees only one thing; this will go down in corporate history as the case study in how not to handle environmental crisis communications; from premature statements about modest impact to the now laughable “we have turned the corner” claim and the money-minded assertion there was “no reason for the share price movement”, many of the utterances signalled those of a self-interested and self-serving organisation.
However, many of the forensic, nay nit-picking, critiques by analysts, experts and profiteering pundits of every hue have been hysterical (against Hayward’s “I want my life back” and yacht trip, and Svanberg’s “…small people” comments), opportunistic (the US political pot-shotters) and aimed to inflict additional pointless discomfort (experts insisting how they’d’ve done it better) on an established brand and corporation patently struggling to cope with a natural and PR disaster beyond it, Haliburton’s and Transocean’s ken. Believe me, BP wants this to end and will be pursuing that goal 100%. Where is that perspective ever reported though?
So I ask you all; where is our balance, our perspective, our compassion to support all concerned in the midst of this horrible environmental catastrophe? Where’s our willingness to give everyone involved (yes, even BP) a break? Societal (ie media) statements, utterances and opinion is increasingly seeming like a harsh, judgemental and very ugly thing. Social Media in particular often supports the angriest critics, not the fair-minded voices of reason. What a cold, unforgiving and pointlessly punitive environment for PRs and communicators trying to convey any kind of company perspective or position.
The BP response has confused many PR experts, but perhaps that’s only because it ceased to be a PR issue months ago. As this AP article shows, the stakes exceed communications and reputation needs. It’s now all about limiting financial damage and the likelihood of corporate and personal prosecution. For example, some years ago I asked a former Comms Chief at a scandal-hit agricultural organisation why Execs listened to lawyers more often than they listened to PRs: “Lawyers can keep them out of jail”, was his deadpan reply.