The PR Show: How comms is helping BP handle COVID-19 and fulfil its net zero ambition

The coronavirus pandemic has stiffened BP’s resolve to become net zero carbon-emitter by 2050. Communications is at the heart of these plans, and has played a critical role in helping the oil and gas multinational handle an unprecedented crisis for the sector. BP's Geoff Morrell and H+K Strategies' Chris Pratt join The PR Show.

The PR Show guests (L-R): Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Chris Pratt, and BP's Geoff Morrell
The PR Show guests (L-R): Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Chris Pratt, and BP's Geoff Morrell

BP has doubled down on its commitment to become a net zero carbon-emitting business by 2050, despite the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting oil prices in the US.

Communications is also playing a critical role in helping the company manage an unprecedented crisis during which the US oil price dipped below zero for the first time.

On 13 March, a month after chief executive Bernard Looney revealed BP would shrink its carbon footprint to zero, the multinational shut down its offices due to the pandemic.

Speaking on PRWeek’s podcast, The PR Show, BP executive vice-president of communications and advocacy, Geoff Morrell, said: “That would seemingly have knocked us off-course on that agenda, but it has not. Bernard was very clear-eyed and unambiguous from the outset that this reconfirms the need for us to reimagine energy for people and our planet – as is our purpose.”

Morrell said BP has continued to work on reinventing the business, but also implemented a new strategy to deal with the threat of the pandemic.

“[Looney] saw that companies were going to be judged by how they [responded] to this. By how they took care of their people, their communities and their shareholders. He laid out a three-part plan to protect our people, support our communities and strengthen our finances.”

This plan involves providing PPE, testing and new social-distancing rules for frontline workers.

“Not everyone will be infected by the virus, but everyone will be affected,” Morrell said. “Everyone in this industry is spending more than they are making at this moment, and [Looney] said we are not going to have any job losses in the midst of these opening few months of the crisis. Our people should [not] have that fear hanging above them.”

BP has provided help to various communities around the world, including free fuel to first responders in the UK, and free jet fuel for the transport of PPE around the world.

To shore up its balance sheet, BP is looking to save $2.5bn from operating expenses by 2021, has made a 25 per cent reduction in capital expenditure and implemented a hiring and promotion freeze.

Communications – internally and externally – have played a critical role in implementing this strategy.

“In any crisis, communications take on a greater sense of importance. It’s the lack of information – a void or vacuum – that causes more anxiety and fear,” Morrell said.

“Our plan has always been a lot of communication from Bernard, and so when we set up his plan it was always about [enabling] our people internally and externally to hear and see him speaking, rather than read the notes and so forth.”

Communication has been important in helping staff understand, for example, why BP has frozen promotions, bonuses and other benefits while donating money to charities such as Mind in the UK.

It has also helped BP provide a narrative about why it has continued to pay dividends when it is making substantial cuts elsewhere, and other businesses are facing a public backlash for doing so.

US vs Europe

It’s not just BP that has had to radically adapt to the pandemic. Hill+Knowlton Strategies managing director of its energy and industrials practice, Chris Pratt, told The PR Show (13:30 mins into the show) that there is a “great deal of consistency” in how other energy companies have responded to this crisis, “and also some significant differences”.

“COVID has been an unprecedented situation that BP and others have had to respond to and [we’ve noticed a lot of] capital expenditure and operating expenditure cuts, focusing on key worker staff at sites. The reduction of executive bonuses and pay have all been features of companies,” he said.

“What’s interesting in the oil and gas arena is that there has been a divergence taking place in the European majors [from] the majors in the US.”

For example, Shell, which came out with a net zero commitment by 2050, has postponed its dividend. “This hasn’t happened for a very long time and has been heralded as quite a departure from previous strategy. We’ve seen similar with the likes of Equinor. In each of these cases there has been a renewed commitment to their climate-change agenda.”

Pratt said there is a genuine concern from the financial community that oil and gas majors ensure they continue on a trajectory toward a decarbonised future and that this crisis doesn’t derail these plans.

This marks a shift from the last major recession in the late 2000s, when sustainability ambitions were largely cast aside by big corporations due to the economic hardship.

Later in the podcast, Morrell and Pratt discuss whether the plans of BP and other energy companies to achieve net zero are now realistic.

The conversation moves on to the critical role of 'advocacy', and why BP rebadged its comms division to incorporate it.

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