BP responds to sustained criticism over media handling of oil spill

Oil firm's media handling of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico continues to come under fire.

As BP continues its frantic attempt to stem the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the company's comms efforts around the disaster have come in for sustained criticism.

Earlier this month, an article in the FT claimed BP had 'become synonymous with corporate incompetence' and that 'the words BP and public relations no longer fit well together', while numerous other media outlets have expanded on the firm's 'PR disaster'.

Clarence Mitchell, Lewis PR director, media strategy and public affairs, argues that BP had made a 'fundamental error' in failing to gain 'early and firm control' of the narrative.

A BP source insisted it and agency Brunswick had endeavoured to be 'as transparent as possible in extremely difficult circumstances', but acknowledged some of its comms tactics had not been successful, most notably its over-exposure of CEO Tony Hayward and TV communications via slick advertising.

One area in particular where the firm struggled was in its early communication of the technical aspects of the response efforts, not helped by a number of failed attempts under exotically named plans such as 'top kill' and 'top hat'.

The BP source admitted communicating this was 'extremely difficult' and helped to damage the credibility of the response. The firm also felt it had been unable to argue more forcefully that it was not wholly to blame for the incident because of legal considerations.

But Porter Novelli corporate practice leader Neil Bayley said BP was too quick to concentrate on communicating with facts and 'did not reflect the sense of outrage building among the US public.'

Hayward's performance has also been criticised for a number of gaffes and failing to position BP as a multi-national firm.

Cohn & Wolfe global head of corporate affairs Geoff Beattie said 'the big mistake was not having a senior US executive to share those responsibilities to remind everyone BP is just as much American as British'.

It is understood that BP did not intend Hayward to be the media face of the issue for so long, but that it failed to predict how long the story would remain in the headlines.

In recent days, the story has shifted to a more political and corporate level, as BP's share price continued to plunge and President Obama stepped up his rhetoric against the firm.

Industry observers noted that this put BP on more familiar and comfortable comms ground, and it has achieved positive media coverage in the UK as the story has shifted to the firm's importance to the country's economy.

How I see it

Kevin Craig, MD, PLMR

Where can you take this story? You are not going to be able to take it anywhere until you plug that spill. With a story like this, the media form a narrative. You have to follow the story and make sure the response is what the man and woman on the street are feeling.

Clarence Mitchell, PR director, Lewis

BP now needs to be bolder and more urgent in its statements, and far more frequent in its media engagement across both traditional and digital channels. Its Facebook and Twitter presence were late to start, slow to develop and often did not give the sense of urgency the public has been demanding.


£1.1bn - The cost of the oil spill in the gulf to BP so far

47% - Drop in BP's UK share price since the accident

8 - Weeks since Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig was destroyed

40k - Barrels per day gushing out, according to US Geological Survey

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