BP’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon disaster demonstrates a lack of understanding as to how technology has changed the consumer marketplace. Their PR efforts have effectively pitted traditional media (such as TV and newspaper ads) against social media (such as the Boycott BP page on Facebook that has received close to a million ‘Likes’ or the BP logo competition run by Greenpeace). Not only does this mean that their ad spend on traditional media is largely ineffectual, but it allows the negative conversations around their brand to continue unresolved.
If a brand wants to influence consumer opinion within this social ecosystem it must play by a set of rules seemingly foreign to BP – transparency, authenticity and accountability. Social networks allow people to bypass traditional media outlets, talk among themselves and come together around shared values. Ecological damage on such a historic scale tapped into our shared concern for the ocean, its marine life, and the planet we leave for our children, and so social media amplified consumer outrage around the world.
BP PLC spent more than $93 million on newspaper advertisements and TV spots in the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, paying out three times as much money on ads as it did during the same time last year, according to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
BP also expanded the scope of its marketing efforts in newspapers during that time, running ads in 17 states—including Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi—up from just two states last year.
AdAge estimates that BP committed over $100 million on advertising to stem damage to its reputation. At its peak in June, this amounted to $3.59 million on Google search and video search ads alone, compared to a monthly average of $57,000 in the months before the disaster. The search and ad terms in question included ‘oil’ spill’, ‘leak’, ‘top kill’ and ‘live feed‘, as BP tried to outmaneuver people, reporters and law firms demanding answers from BP rather than accepting what they were being told.
BP cannot just advertise their way out of this problem. Not only has the ‘Beyond Petroleum’ strategy been exposed, but traditional media cannot penetrate online conversations driven by consumers that distrust or bypass it. The only way to change the tone of those conversations is to inspire consumers to shift it themselves.
Here’s my list of the top ten reasons why BP’s current approach won’t work. It’s list that exposes the heart and mind of an organization very different to the one described in its television and newspaper ads.
1. CYNICAL START – In late July 2000, BP launched a massive $200 million public relations and advertising campaign, complete with full color ads in magazines, introducing the company’s new slogan, ‘Beyond Petroleum’, and a yellow sun as its logo. It was widely criticized as ‘greenwashing’ and for co-opting the language and messaging of environmentalists.
2. LACK OF OVERSIGHT: Federal hearings into the cause and response to the disaster have exposed a systemic lack of oversight for key safety systems on deep-sea drilling rigs. BP and companies like it have effectively been left to police themselves and have demonstrated a consistent disregard for environmental safety.
3. DELAYED RESPONSE: BP has been widely criticized for its lack of preparedness, slow response in finding a solution to cap the leaking well, and for making it almost impossible for communities affected by the disaster to contact the company itself.
4. BUYING EXPERTS: BP did demonstate urgency in its rush to buy the silence or support of a team of marine experts that would take its side in court. Such actions communicated culpability in the minds of consumers more powerfully than any advertising.
5. DISTORTING TRUTH: From consistently downplaying the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf, to doctoring photographs, to buying up Google search terms related to the disaster, BP acted as if disclosure of the truth was yet another responsibility it could avoid.
6. PR FAUXPARTS: BP executed a series of well-documented PR mis-steps in its handling of the crisis, and ultimately BP CEO, Tony Hayward, proved to be the fall guy. While no one man is solely responsible for company or industry-wide practices, such PR failures demonstrate a lack of interest, awareness and empathy for the lives of the people and animals it affected. Just last week BP’s threatened to cut aid to victims of the spill if Congress prevents it from drilling offshore.
7. UNCHANGED INTENTIONS – BP’s announcement that it intended to continue to drill in the Gulf using deep-sea rigs that take even greater risks is more than untimely. It indicates a ‘business as usual’ attitude towards the drilling industry and its role in the disaster.
8. INDUSTRY UNCHECKED: As the New York Times reported, there have been three unrelated oil leaks in the same area since the Deepwater Horizon spill began. This speaks to an industry insufficiently regulated or consciously bypassing critical safety measures. It indicates a culture of negligence that undermines any assurances made by BP.
9. OUT OF SIGHT, TOP OF MIND – While BP poured an excessive amount of dispersants into the Gulf to reduce the “appearance “of oil, scientists assure us that it is there – specifically in the form of a 22-mile long plume – and not going away anytime soon. Such acknowledgements should be coming from BP that has instead turned its attention to pending court cases and new drilling opportunities.
10. TIMELESS TRUTH: According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, the negative effects of unethical behavior have a substantially greater impact on consumer willingness to pay than the positive effects of ethical behavior. The cumulative effects of 1-9 above mean that BP has to do something extraordinary to combat the long-term damage to its reputation.
A full page newspaper ad (or ten) does not disperse the damage done to the lives of fishermen and their surrounding communities devastated by the spill who are now struggling under the weight of consumer concerns over their catches. A TV ad (or ten) does not restore the generations of marine life lost, nor repair the damage done to the Gulf’s ecosystem. A search ad (or ten) does not change the mind of a single consumer unless BP fundamentally changes its behavior.
So what does BP do? Yes, it needs to institute the preventative, preparedness and response systems that would ensure a tragedy of this scale never happens again. But if BP truly wants to repair its reputation it must do some comparable in scale to the crisis it created. Something so captivating that it converts the communities of critics. Here’s an idea:
BP, announce to the world that you will become the caretaker for the ocean and marine life in each of the regions in which you operate.
This seems only fair. BP and its affiliates are the sole beneficiaries of billions in profit from the resources that these regions provide (a tidy $14 billion profit in 2009). BP could take just a small percentage of those enormous profits and partner with any number of ocean protection organizations that would jump at the chance to work with a BP that promotes rather than exploits the ocean. If it had done this earlier it could have saved the $40 billion (and rising) cost of the clean-up, not to mention all the misplaced advertising dollars they are yet to spend hoping to rebuild their reputation.
This expectation may appear optimistic, naive or even impossible to some. But its no more impossible than a BP hoping to win back public opinion without changing their motives, intentions or behavior.
Such a commitment would command attention. Demand it, in fact. Providing a meaningful action that matches the scale of the disaster, fast-tracking the reconstruction of their brand, and providing as systemic and sustainable solution as consistent as the profit-producing flow of oil itself. It would enlist social media in the service of the brand rather than against it. It would enable the brand to overwhelm the collective memories of online communities and not just repair the damage done to BP’s reputation by the disaster, but improve it forever.
Do that, BP, and ‘Beyond Petroleum’ would make sense. Do that, and this disaster will not have been for nothing. Do that, and you can cancel those expensive TV, newspaper or search ads. We’ll do your publicity for free. So will the next generation.