BP still cleaning up mess of a response to oil spill in Gulf

No one in their right mind would want to be in the shoes of BP chief executive Tony Hayward at the moment, despite the fact that he leads one of the world's largest corporations.

No one in their right mind would want to be in the shoes of BP chief executive Tony Hayward at the moment, despite the fact that he leads one of the world's largest corporations.

Formerly British Petroleum, BP now positions itself as Beyond Petroleum, but is faced with an environmental catastrophe of dramatic proportions. Hayward's claim that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in which, let's not forget, 11 workers lost their lives - was "relatively tiny" compared with the "very big ocean" now seems laughable.

The multi-billion-dollar company's communications response has attracted criticism, especially its initial reaction in trying to pass off blame onto rig owner Transocean and energy services firm Halliburton.

President Obama wasn't alone in thinking this approach unseemly when anything between 5,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking unstemmed into the ocean, however "big" that ocean might be. He banged heads and suggested the "cozy relationship" between government and the oil industry was well and truly over.

BP has gotten its communications act together subsequently, including a comprehensive website to provide information updates, videos from key executives, pictures, broadcast interviews, and copious contact details.

Communications agencies with other oil companies as clients will say, "There but for the grace of God go I," but as a senior executive at one such agency noted, at least the debate now is around what the damage is and how it will be cleared up, rather than whether BP should have been there and whether what it was doing was wrong.

BP has communications pros such as former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers on the case. Gowers' first PR job when he left FT was head of communications at the ill-fated and now-bankrupt financial firm Lehman Brothers. He must be wishing he could slip back into the - relatively - comfortable shoes of business journalism. PR is not for the faint-hearted.

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