Echoes of Bhopal in BP

posted by Chad Tragakis

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington

“Business started long centuries before the dawn of history, but business as we now know it is new – new in its broadening scope, new in its social significance.  Business has not learned how to handle these changes, nor does it recognize the magnitude of its responsibilities for the future of civilization.”

        Wallace Donham, Dean of Harvard Business School – 1929

I love this quote.  Sadly, it rings as true today as it did 80 years ago.  Business had not yet learned how to handle the changes that were happening then in terms of the real impact the sector had on society.  And while incredible progress has been made in the decades since Donham’s prophetic observation, it’s clear that business still does not recognize the real power it holds in shaping the future of our planet and its people.  There are great models of responsible, sustainable corporations and glimmers of hope from enlightened enterprises.  But there are too many BPs out there – companies with lots of promise but little execution.

As someone who used to live in the Gulf Coast region and who holds a solemn respect for our natural world, the BP spill—coming to me live via 24/7 spillcam—continues to crush my spirit.  As a communications professional, it continues to astound and amaze me.  There are many important communications, public relations and corporate positioning lessons to be learned from the BP saga (no doubt, detailed analyses and dissections of the event are already appearing en masse in the PR and communications trade journals).  But the longer term story here is that BP’s spill now joins the annals of corporate communications landmark events – the flashpoints in our collective consciousness that create lasting legacies, sometimes good (think Tylenol) but usually bad. 

Every individual has their own mental list – and what’s on it depends a lot on where you live, what you do and when you were born.  For some, the list begins with watershed, game-changing books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed.  For others, it is a laundry list of mismanagement, malfeasance and missed opportunity – Barings Bank, Bridgestone/Firestone, Enron, Parmalat, Societe Generale, Toyota, Tyco, WorldCom…  Exxon’s Valdez oil spill ranks high on most of our lists, but for many, the list is topped by Union Carbide’s 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India.  More on that in a moment. 

Plenty of companies have slow simmering issues and scandals that play out over time, but I’m convinced that the ones that are largely event-driven are more powerful to the human psyche – regardless of their actual impact.  As a result, these legacies live on sometimes for generations.  Some may argue that Prudhoe Bay or the Texas City refinery explosion would already have landed BP a place on the list, especially because of how antithetical those events were to the culture of responsibility and environmental stewardship that the company (through the voice of Lord John Browne) spent a decade building, or at least talking about.  That may be true, but those events—as unfortunate as they were—were nothing compared to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Some consumers have short memories, but many more do not.  I know people who are still punishing Exxon for the Valdez spill – going out of their way to another service station even if the price is a few cents higher per gallon.  And this brings me back to Bhopal.

Bhopal remains the world’s worst industrial disaster.  It also remains one of the early, principal milestones and demarcation points for when the world woke up to what it should expect of corporations.  And while Bhopal may still top our mental lists, until recently, it was largely a talking point in CSR speeches and a footnote in text books.  Dow, which bought Union Carbide in 1999, has maintained a quiet microsite on the event and resulting settlement, but the tragedy hasn’t been much of an issue for them, at least publicly.  That changed a few weeks ago, when sentences were finally handed down in the long running case.  Although seven former employees of Union Carbide were found guilty of death by negligence, their two year prison sentences have been hailed by survivors and their advocates as a slap in the face, prompting a torrent of fury and protest.  And there are renewed calls for Dow to do more in terms of site remediation and accepting greater responsibility to compensate victims and bring about true justice.

A full 25 years later, and Bhopal is still generating community outrage, criticism from NGO activists and a robust online campaign, pointed media coverage, interest from policy-makers and reputational risk for Dow.

So, if the recent echoes of Bhopal are any indication, it appears that the very actions by which BP hoped to save a little time and a little money are going to cost them plenty more of both.

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