How PR practices can help change BP’s perception

How PR practices can help change BP’s perception

Written by: Komail Mithani

June 14, 2010 4:37 am 4 comments

Lets take a step back and examine a severe global public relations crisis unfolding infront of our eyes. I’m talking about BP’s contiously spreading oil spill in our Gulf Coast. The whole world is yearning to see and hear developments, while reporters are secoudaring on executives every move. But first, take a minute and think about the first words that come to mind when you hear “BP.”

Most likely you start heavily associated this company with greed, corruption, stupidity, lack of integrity or moral etc. Namely associations that draw negatives about the company, which intale your perception about the company. Your perception is something that has a huge influence on the way you live your life. It is the emotional association we as individuals create between objects around us and the knowledge we obtain about them, but of course, you already knew that. As public relations practitioners we help clients create this perception in the mind of a consumer, usually a positive direction toward a company or brand.

However, what happens when a company messes up?  How do public relations practitioners help influence or realign this perception, so that we are all satisfied on some level? It’s hard work, but as public relations partitioners it is what we live for!

But, before I move on, I must clarify something. I am a recent graduate with a Public Relations degree, so the next observations and opinions I bring up are in no way expert advice. My goal is to present to you several steps BP could implement or philiosphies it needs to utilize to possibly turn their perception around. Please be aware I am basing this off class discussions, my own analysis, and prinicples I believe every executive should implement on a daily basis. I believe with these strategies and principles BP has the opportunity to change their reputation while teaching how important public relations is to a company’s bottom line.

So to get started, what should have BP done differently?

  1. Be honest – BP’s crisis is one that involves so many parties, including our environment. They need to be honest with everyone about their plans to stop the spill, exactly how many barrels are being deposited, and what effects are directly and indirectly resulting from their mishap. Having a proactive rather than a reactive approach will make it appear that BP genuinely cares that it messed up and they are genuinely trying to use all its resources possible to stop the spill.
  2. Pick one spokesperson to speak to the media – BP has been juggling with different stories on what to tell and not tell the media. This issue has gone so out of control that the New York Times had an article about BP’s need to control what their CEO is saying. At one moment, Tony Hayward was reported saying, “I’d like my life back.” In a crisis like this, BP needs to have one or a few people addressing the media daily and with one voice. Their spokesman or woman needsbe in cohesion with the company’s philosophy and address the media promptly with updates and events.
  3. Stop talking about dividends – I understand as being a publicly traded company, you have a great deal of pressure toaddress the needs and expectations of your investors. But, when dealing with such a mishap as BP has caused, dividends should be the last thing on anyone’s mind, in my opinion. In fact, it has been reported by MSNBC that BP will be paying out $2.63 billion in dividends to its shareholders on June 21st. Nothing yells greed and irresponsibility than that! I don’t think BP understands the example they are making for future executives and MBAs eager to run multi-billion dollar corporations. I bet you and I can list tons of ways that money could be used to help fix this problem. Especially some out of work fisherman that need that help right now.
  4. Don’t run manipulative advertising – Recently, BP starting running this ad, which to me appears like a poor excuse for an apology. Although, I understand Tony Hayward is trying to reassure me BP is doing all it can to bring things back to normal. But, I continually lose focus of this after coming across articles in the NYT about limiting reporter access and other such problems. The ad makes it seem BP treats Americans as uninformed citizens, who believe everything is perfect in the Gulf. It would have been beneficial for BP to create ads interviewing workers helping with the spill or an explanation of what happened and what is being done to stop the spill. This premature apology is exactly what BP doesn’t need, especially since the oil is still gushing into the Gulf.
  5. Stop lying – There maybe one thing worse than cheating, and to me that is blatantly lying. Americans hate lairs and are quick to pick up when someone is telling us a bold face lie. All we ask for is the honest truth. BP is only hurting their perception not helping it. This principle goes hand in hand with my first point, which I hold near and dear to my heart.

BP’s “strategic” public relations approach to this devastating disaster in the Gulf, reminds me of what we saw in Alaska and Exxon Valdez. Although I must note, they have taken more efforts than Exxon ever did to reassure us they are working on this problem. Honestly, what we see in front of our eyes is an example of greed overpowering common sense and the willingness “to do the right thing.” I’ve put this phrase in quotes because the right thing is always different to everyone.

It will be interesting to see how this story unfolds, because BP has tons of work to do in the next decade to recover, if they can, their perception of the company. I hope with this disaster, they approach their public relations in a different manner and maybe their philosophy of the company.