August 10, 2010

The Public Relations of an Oil Spill

While the Gulf oil spill, which began with a drilling rig explosion on April 20, was still raging in its fourth week with no end in sight, BP Chairman Tony Hayward said that the environmental impact would be "very, very modest" because the gulf was a “big ocean”. No one ever spoke out and supported his declaration then. After all, no one could have predicted that the oil leakage estimated to be almost five million barrels before the well was capped in mid- July, would disappear, evaporate or dissolve as nature pleased.

Relative to the Gulf’s size of 20.4 quadrillion (meaning one thousand million million) barrels of water, plus the drainage of the Loop Current which exits out of the Florida Straits to the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Hayward was asserting a simplistic scientific deduction that the damage would not be catastrophic. Recent news reports indicate that the hypothesis was probably right. However BP should have known in a public disaster emotions rule over science.

Two weeks on May 31st a tired-looking Mr. Hayward told a reporter “We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back”. Mr. Hayward was responding to reports of increasing public frustration and impatience. He should have stopped at the second sentence. Since then, he has been labelled as the “I’d like my life back” guy.

Mr. Hayward could have excused himself from making a public gaffe by stating he was too drained for an interview and will have a press conference as soon as possible.

Then on June 17, coached by his legal and PR team, the BP chief executive told House Representatives that he was not part of the engineering decisions on the well prior to the disaster. The equivocation angered both Congress and the public. Whether Mr. Hayward was telling the truth or not is not the question. He should have accepted personal responsibility without any qualifications. Period.

Soon after, Mr. Hayward was spotted aboard a ritzy yacht race off the English coast, sponsored by an investment company. The American public was livid. BP spokespersons explained Mr. Hayward wanted to clear his mind and have some private time with his family. Yes the need for a respite is understandable. But when a lot of people are hurting, one must explore humbler ways of recovery even if there is the means for more luxurious alternatives.

Often public relations is perceived as spin-doctoring and excessive control of information. In BP’s case, the premise was probably to buy time and hopefully there won’t be a need for admission –as in greater spillage than initially reported by the oil company. To a certain extent there is a need for control because some media outlets thrive in sensationalism. But the best way to counter this in the long-term is the antidote of sensationalism – which is honesty at the get go. The road will still be rocky but in time the humanity of the whole tragedy and facts will overrule.

Joseph Lopez is a journalist, PR practitioner, and an organizational strategist.


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