What P.R. experts think of BP's response to the oil spill.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 5 2010 8:08 PM

Oil Slick

How BP is handling its P.R. disaster.

BP faces two crises. The first is stopping the spillage of 200,000 gallons of oil a day in the Gulf of Mexico. The other is convincing people it's trying to stop the spillage of 200,000 gallons of oil a day in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP has long been famous for its public relations—in good ways and bad. Its "Beyond Petroleum" rebranding campaign, first launched in 2000, earned plaudits from the P.R. community. It also drew mockery from journalists and environmentalists who saw the campaign as "greenwashing." Now, in the midst of the biggest disaster of its disaster-laden history, BP is experimenting with new ways to get its message out. Its traditional efforts—official statements, press releases, morning-show interviews—have been hit or miss, according to crisis communications experts. But it appears to be having more success with social media.

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Since the initial explosion on the oil rig in April, BP has made some missteps. For example, the company initially told reporters that the rig was leaking 1,000 barrels of oil a day. The real figure turned out to be 5,000 barrels, after a new leak was discovered. Even then a BP spokesman downplayed the number as somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000. "That hurt their credibility early on," says Timothy Coombs, who teaches public relations at Eastern Illinois University. "People wondered, How much can we trust you?" It also violated a rule that Larry Smith of the Institute for Crisis Management tells his clients: "Don't speculate. If you know, say so. If you don't know, say you don't know."

Nor should BP have tried to deflect blame for the accident. Its first press release after the spill emphasized that the oil rig belonged to drilling contractor Transocean Ltd. and that BP offered its "full support," implying that it wasn't at fault. The company also referred to the accident as the "Gulf of Mexico oil spill," whereas others—including President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency—called it the "BP oil spill." BP then tried to distinguish between blame for the accident and responsibility for cleaning up after it. "It wasn't our accident," CEO Tony Hayward said on the Today show, "but we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up."

That may be literally true: BP owns the oil but not the rig. But it's a shoddy communications strategy, says Smith. Wherever the fault lies, BP shouldn't be splitting hairs. Companies should take the fall and work out recriminations behind closed doors, says Coombs. For example, when the chain Taco Johns had an E. coli outbreak, it didn't publicly blame the lettuce supplier. It took responsibility. And, of course, sued the lettuce supplier later.

BP also needs to grasp that though it may not be a villain, people perceive it that way. Hayward initially said that BP "will honor all legitimate claims for business interruption." A reporter asked what an illegitimate claim would look like. "I could give you lots of examples," he said. "This is America—come on. We're going to have lots of illegitimate claims. We all know that." Michael W. Robinson of Levick Strategic Communications recommends a bit more self-awareness. "You have to recognize that everyone, from fishermen to congressmen, is going to look at you with a jaundiced view," Robinson says.

When it comes to social media and the Web, though, communications experts give BP high marks. BP created a section of its Web site dedicated to the spill, complete with photos, video, and maps that track the cleanup. "I'd have to give it an A+," saysSmith. In one video, a sweaty, fatigued Hayward explains the cleanup while a roomful of busy-looking employees buzzes behind him, giving viewers a glimpse into the hectic cleanup process that they don't get from an interview with Katie Couric. Same with Deepwaterhorizonresponse.com, a new Web site created by the coalition of organizations pitching in to clean up the mess, including BP. The company also posts constant updates to its Twitter feed.

Putting your propaganda on Twitter and Facebook doesn't make it any less propagandistic. But it does help a company respond faster and more precisely to new developments. When reports came out that BP was trying to get fishermen to sign waivers holding BP harmless from certain claims related to the cleanup, BP backpedaled on Twitter: "We've assured fishermen's association that fishermen offering services are not required to sign a waiver. Any signed won't be enforced." Twitter also helps build trust in small ways. For example, BP tweeted a hotline for people to call if they see oiled wildlife.

BP isn't the first company to handle a crisis via new media. When two employees of Domino's Pizza posted a video that showed one of them sticking food up his nose, the company's president posted his apology on YouTube. Nestle, meanwhile, showed what not to do by snarkily responding to critics on its Facebook page.

But BP appears to be embracing the more-is-better ethos of new media more than any other troubled company. "The old saying is true: You can never overcommunicate in a crisis," says Robinson. By that measure, BP is doing just fine.