Comms pros on BP's attempt at closure following 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill

BP is looking to draw a line under the damaging 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill following the US government's latest announcement on the disaster - but PR and reputation professionals say challenges for the firm, and the broader energy industry, have not gone away.

Deepwater Horizon: Fire boats douse the rig flames the day after the April 2010 spill, which caused 11 worker deaths (Credit: EPI2oh via Flickr)
Deepwater Horizon: Fire boats douse the rig flames the day after the April 2010 spill, which caused 11 worker deaths (Credit: EPI2oh via Flickr)

The US Department of Justice on Monday announced that it had, along with the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, reached an agreement with BP worth $20bn (£13bn) in settlement payments.

A statement from BP said that this amount did not represent any increase on a settlement previously announced in July, but that it provided BP with "certainty with respect to its financial obligations and allowing us to focus on safely delivering the energy the world needs".

But BP cannot consider itself totally off the hook. Ed Coke, a director at consultancy firm Reputation Institute, said: "My feeling is this does give it an opportunity to move forward – not totally unencumbered, but certainly able to say that this has now been and gone."

He went on to say: "From a consumer perspective, that view of BP being responsible will stay with it for a long time – I think as a brand and as a company it is probably reconciled to that."

Seán Galvin, MD of energy and environment at FTI Consulting in London, said: "This is not just BP's issue, it's the whole industry's issue – every time a company gets caught in the crosshairs like this, it's the whole oil and gas industry that takes a reputational hit."

Galvin said the industry's response should continue a collaborative approach to comms already evidenced in June, when six major European firms jointly approached the United Nations to offer help devising a plan to stop global warming. Calling this a "powerful intervention", Galvin said: "The industry should be doing more to proactively work together in this way."

"I think for a long time the energy industry has been playing not to lose. The game is changing. Today it needs to play to win," Galvin said, adding that it was particularly important that the industry made itself heard at the UN's Paris Climate Change Conference, which begins at the end of November.

Peter Elms, director at newly launched UK agency Alpaca Communications, which has a focus on sustainability and environment, said the affair taught "predictable" PR lessons to other parts of the energy sector.

"You only need consider fracking to see what impact the BP mauling will have. The fracking debate has only just started in the UK, but what is clear already is that operators need to be able to convince communities that they can operate safely. Without that trust, all the protestors' arguments about earthquakes and explosions will stick," he said.

As for whether the Gulf disaster would have the effect of giving renewable energies a PR boost, Elms said: "The issue for renewables has never been that people don’t think oil companies can do harm, its just that they don’t believe or like the renewables 'hype' and don't appreciate the way it looks when built near their homes. Of course that’s irrational, that’s why we have PR."

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