What does BP Need? — The Manhattan Project of Reputation Programs
04 June 2010
Take every corporate crisis one can remember — gather them all up and the sum only comes close to the size of the Deepwater Horizon disaster facing BP — and the prospect of enormous operational, financial, regulatory, legal and reputational consequences that will follow.
I have been asked any number of times (by colleagues, clients and reporters), “How is BP doing with their PR” and “What will BP need to do to repair its reputation?”
My answer to the first has been, “As compared to what?” BP truly is in unchartered waters in terms of crisis communications. We’ve never seen anything on this scale. This has no precedent, and thus it is unfair and impossible to compare BP’s communications response to that of any other corporation or institution that has suffered a crisis.
Ultimately, though, no amount of quality communications (PR, advertising, digital, community, public affairs, etc.) can compete with that live video stream of the oil gushing out of the sea bed. In short, the best PR move BP can make is to stop the leak. They know this.
While one can quibble with some of BP’s tactics, and some of BP’s messages may be off-target or ill-conceived (most notably, Tony Hayward’s “I want my life back” remark), one cannot fault BP on its commitment to communication. No company has every invested as much in terms of people resources, money and tools in order to connect with its many stakeholders.
And frankly its latest ads — “We will get it done. We will make this right.” – are bold, impactful and show heart. People will now wait to see if BP delivers on the promise.
To be sure, by the sheer scale and scope of its communications efforts, BP has raised the bar for all other companies facing a significant crisis in the future. Every reputation manager should be asking the questions, “Are we prepared to commit the scale of communications resources being deployed by BP?… “Is my CEO prepared to relocate to the center of a crisis for the foreseeable future, and to speak to media on a daily basis in a compelling manner?” … “Are we prepared for the prospect of carrying out a crisis communications program in the eye of a hurricane?”
As to the second question, “What will BP need to do to repair its reputation?” the short answer is that they will need to embark on a reputation program comparable in scale to the Manhattan Project. But before even considering doing that, they will need to get their house in order.
A lesson for all reputation managers from this crisis is that there is great danger when there is a delta between a company’s performance and behavior and how the company presents its performance and behavior.
Through its “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, audiences were led to believe that BP was different – and better – than its peers in the oil patch. It was greener, more responsible, and more progressive. Its values were somehow different.
This indeed is what BP aspired to be. But it is clear that it is not what BP was/is. The occasion of the Deepwater Horizon incident has revealed that the emperor, to a degree, had no clothes.
In this era where trust is a commodity is scarce supply, companies must be ever-more careful to keep their performance and their articulation of their performance in balance.
There may have been a time when the public wanted companies to be aspirational. They probably still do. But the public need to see companies live up to their aspirations.
BP will survive. At its foundation, it is a strong company. It has shown skill before at smart, progressive communications. I imagine it will do so again. But it will be a different company.
Just has ExxonMobil has had to live with the reputation scar of the Valdez Incident, BP will forever more have the scar of Deepwater Horizon.