May 10, 2010
BP's Image Problem
Posted by Tamara Piety

As oil continues to pour out of the BP managed rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the discussion in marketing circles is (of course) what this will mean for BP's image. See Advertising Age. About a decade ago BP launched an intensive effort to brand itself as the "responsible" and "green" oil company with its "Beyond Petroleum" campaign and a logo change to a green and yellow stylized sunburst. (This campaign apparently included some pretty weird, but entertaining, viral videos. See this  I say "apparently" because although the production values of the video are very high, it almost seems like a spoof with its inclusion of things like breast implants ["beyond pain, joy"] and a guy running out of toilet paper ["beyond fear, courage"]).

Some observers think the campaign was never anything more than greenwashing; that is, it was an attempt to manipulate public perception without any significant commitment to alternative energy exploration. For example see this criticism in 2000 and this in 2010.

But reading the article in Advertising Age, which dissects what PR observers appear to think is a less than stellar response to the accident on the part of BP, is instructive about what everyone in the business thinks is going on with these campaigns. A problem they say is that BP's campaign was so successful it underscored the disconnect between the campaign claims and the reality in the Gulf. (Ironically, BP was actually on the verge of winning an award for its safety record, an award the article implies, but does not say, may have been more attributable to the campaign than to the actual record.) This disconnect is a problem. But you'd think it is one that could have been avoided by making a commitment to these issues that was more than rhetorical. Too often though the commitment stops at the marketing.

On the blow out, management at BP has apparently been slow to control "the message" and has actually been doing things that might make a bad situation worse; like "offering $5,000 settlements to residents if they waived their rights to sue for any damages." As one PR pro put it:

"That's a profoundly disturbing message to have resonating as one of your first public messages ... When the public sees the company leading with a legal protection agenda trying to limit legal exposure, it's not a good thing. The next shoe to drop is usually the attorney general intervening to remind the company of its obligations. Perception-wise, this is out of control."

Uh, yeah.  Although perhaps it isn't just the perception. 

This is a perennial problem with PR - the temptation to believe that the response stops with managing the public perception and that changing the perception is the solution to any problem. That can work pretty well until reality collides with promotion. And then promotion may not help much. As the article notes:

"Of course, all the social media in the world won't do much if millions of gallons of oil wash ashore, crippling the fishing industry in Louisiana and Mississippi or destroying the white-sand beaches (and tourism trade) in Alabama and Florida."

It will be interesting to see if BP does manage to get its arms around a better PR strategy, in addition to actually fixing the problem.  But I'm betting it does the first before it does the second.

Corporate Governance, Current Affairs, Environment, Marketing, Social Responsibility | Bookmark

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