In his speech last night, President Obama made it plain that BP is responsible for “the worst environmental disaster America has ever seen … one we will be fighting for months and even years.” The words came a week after Obama called on BP to suspend ad spending and dividend payments until the company has fully paid for the cleanup. While the oil giant has agreed to set aside $20 billion for cleanup and claims, the company’s PR team might consider Obama’s advertising suggestion as advice well taken. The catastrophe has laid waste to BP’s carefully constructed “green” image; now its communication efforts are only throwing salt on the wound.
A 60-second spot shows CEO Tony Hayward announcing that BP has taken responsibility for the cleanup, along with pictures of crews mustering on beaches, lowering booms and bathing birds. And while the commercial avoids images of the actual slick, it has inevitably generated angry response videos. BP’s YouTube post of the spot has generated an overwhelming 12,000 or so “dislikes” vs. about 1,100 “likes” (the company disabled YouTube’s comments function). The message is too little too late, and BP’s website covering its cleanup efforts feels far less like a genuine attempt at transparency than a calculated PR move. After all, this is the company that bought the search term “oil spill” from Google in an attempt to get control of its image.
Other oil companies will have to be careful not to be pulled into BP’s quagmire. Perhaps Hippocrates is a good place to start: First, do no harm.