Beyond Petroleum Reputation Management

Posted on May 31, 2010

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From a reputation management perspective, what has BP done wrong? The easier question is what have they done right…nothing.

Many so called pundits on the air waves are commenting that there is little that BP can do with respect to public perception until the oil leak is fixed. To that I say, things go wrong in business everyday and they are dealt with honestly and proactively in order to keep people informed and to manage expectations. Since the beginning of the crisis, BP has come across arrogant and untruthful. Early on, when the BP CEO implied that the Gulf slick was "nothing more than a drop in the ocean," it demonstrated a disregard for people in the region and a holier than thou attitude. Such comments set the tone for more to come.

As things progressed, BP assured the public as well as the press that the “top kill” method of pumping heavy mud into the leaking oil well to stop the leak was going as planned. It was not until several days had passed into the Memorial Day weekend holiday that there was an admission of top kill not working. Thus, the operation had been brought to a screeching halt.

At the time of this writing, the BP CEO is disputing the findings of Scientists that there are large oil plumes present below the surface of the ocean. So whom does one believe? That is simple…certainly not BP.

BP has created mistrust and a situation where anything they say is regarded as fiction. So, what could they have done?

Although the magnitude of this ecological disaster is unprecedented, huge catastrophes effecting the brand have plenty of precedent. There have been instances where lives have been lost due to spoilage of food, medication tampering, and many more similar instances. The companies that better managed these terrible circumstances did so by:

  • Speaking candidly to the public.
  • Even when not knowing outcomes, continually reached out with information that they did know.
  • When not knowing specific answers, articulated that as being the case.
  • Expressed apologies early on and meant the words spoken.
  • Identified with the victims and provided updates in an ongoing manner.

With all that being said, humans do make mistakes so one would hope that as errors are made lessons are learned. Far from the case here. Just today, the latest remarks from BP leadership are particularly selfish and unfortunately consistent with past tone. Earlier the CEO of BP expressed that he wants the oil leak to come to an end in order to have his life back. That pretty much says it all and further supports why this will be the ultimate case study on what not to do in a crisis.

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