Danny Rogers: BP marks new level of corporate PR crisis

These days, each corporate crisis seems to trump the last in terms of impact and longevity.

Danny Rogers
Danny Rogers

Toyota's safety issues earlier this year created a reputational disaster on an almost unprecedented global scale, with billions of pounds in lost sales, hundreds of thousands of vehicles recalled and a negative media narrative that persisted for weeks.

However, BP's current predicament suddenly makes Toyota's travails look less catastrophic. At the time of writing, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had already cost BP £1.6bn in initial costs and the firm's share price had almost halved in a few weeks. More worryingly for BP, its reputation was under the sort of American verbal assault last experienced by the Taliban.

In recent weeks, CEO Tony Hayward has taken a level of flak that must make even a highly paid executive wonder if his career was worth all the effort. This is not to undermine the serious nature of BP's mistakes, but to point out the scale of this crisis.

During the first week of June, Hayward was described by the New York Daily News as 'the most hated - and most clueless - man in America'. The Washington Post wrote: 'At this point, how can anyone believe a word this man says? If he told me my mother loves me, I'd want a second source.'

To criticise BP's handling of the crisis - as is traditional (and usually valuable, of course) - is almost beyond necessity in this case. When the US President is comparing your company's errors to 9/11, you know things have not quite gone to plan.

BP is finally finding breathing space to admit some of the comms mistakes - allowing Barack Obama to position this as a 'British' problem, for example - but the operational errors are about to be scrutinised by US Congress at heavier reputational cost.

The biggest comms misjudgement BP made was underestimating just how devastating a corporate crisis could be in this age of globalised rolling news, social media and febrile politics. Where once the standard crisis planning case study was Shell's Brent Spar disaster in the mid-1990s, one now needs to think on a much bigger scale.

Obama's 9/11 comparison smacks of political expediency in creating a foreign scapegoat. But for BP and the oil industry - and possibly for any global corporate communicator - the world has most definitely changed.

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