BP Drills Their Way to an Oily Mess, Part III

History is riddled with dumb comments by famous — and infamous — people.  Sometimes the comments were cruel and mean-spirited (at least as recorded by historians), and perhaps sometimes they were taken out of context.

We’ll never know for sure if this seemingly selfish quote was, indeed, uttered by Marie Antoinette when she learned the starving French wanted bread: “Let them eat cake.”  Historical novelist Catherine Delors offers a contrary view and, well, some historical insight.

The fatal explosion April 20 that led to the environmental quagmire in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in a lot of comments we’ll forever relate to BP’s engineering and communications response to this tragedy.   A lot of these statements are billed as “PR gaffes,” but I’ll share some other thoughts soon.

Here’s a quick run down of some of the most “quoted” statements resulting from the spill:

1.  BP CEO Tony Hayward’s, “I want my life back” casual, yet utterly stupid, comment when offering thoughts to a reporter on the devastation caused to by the spill to people and the environment.  Not much room to defend Mr. Hayward here.  Yes, you were tired and frustrated; but your comment was a verbal slap in the face.

2. BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg’s, “We care about the small people” remark at a news conference following a meeting with President Obama.  This seemingly calloused comment was made by a man of Swedish descent, speaking a second language. He later apologized in a statement, more than likely written by a member of the crisis communications team.

3. President Obama’s “whose ass to kick” comment, spoken in an interview to NBC and first reported on the “Today Show.” This statement was made before the President even spoke face-to-face with any BP officials.  Yes, the President had a right to be angry because BP apparently did not have any idea how to stop the leak, or even know how much oil was gushing from the mile-deep well.  But did he have to resort to what amounts to street language?

4. Texas Rep. Joe Barton’s statement in the House during the testimony by Hayward that the proposed BP Gulf relief fund amounted to a “$20 billion shakedown.” To his credit, the Congressman said he was offering his own opinion, and he later apologized — due to pressure from those higher up in the GOP.   Yet making such a remark given the constant stream of bad news simply made no sense.

Okay, time for my thoughts.

Yes, the statements noted above, as well as others, probably should not have been spoken.  Period.  This is especially true in all of these cases because the person who spoke them knew he was being interviewed on camera.  They knew they had time to prepare remarks that wouldn’t serve as lightening rods for the ongoing mess in the Gulf.  The men who made these comments either didn’t think through the full ramifications of their statements.

Throughout this entire Gulf spill tragedy, the media keeps bringing up the public relations profession and relating it to the reason there’s oil covered pelicans, dead fish, crude-covered beaches and shattered livelihoods.  Public relations didn’t cause this problem, and public relations alone can’t solve it. The problem was caused by faulty drilling procedures; the resulting clean up efforts are engineering issues; the program to process claims is a corporate financial issue.

Public relations professionals did not make the dumb statements above or set the policies on how to handle the clean up of the Gulf.  Why keep blasting public relations?

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Random Thoughts for a Friday on the Chicago Blackhawks

Here’s my challenge:  How to tie in an excellent business lunch in downtown Chicago today with observations made of the throngs of happy revelers celebrating the official victory parade for the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.   After all, the PRDude (aka Edward M.  Bury) writes about public relations and his quest for a new great full-time position.   (I’ll stop with the third person.)  But before I get to that, listen to this cool song by the Dick Marx Orchestra, “Here Come the Hawks.”   Don’t you feel like a fan?

Here goes, some random thoughts that will hold true to the nature of this blog:

  1. The Blackhawks Brought Good PR to Chicago. In 2006, Chicago’s NHL hockey franchise was deemed by some guy at ESPN the worst in professional sports.  Judging by lots of empty seats at the United Center, a streak of lousy seasons, poor drafts, management changes and more, there might have been some validity.  But no more.  The Blackhawks are one of pro sports most popular and exciting teams, led by young stars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.  Winning the Cup has brought a tremendous amount of positive exposure to Chicago; many will say, “that’s good PR!”  I agree.
  2. First Stanley Cup Win Since 1961 Opened Hockey to New Audience. As the team marched toward the Stanley Cup finals, momentum grew; but not just among the hockey faithful — those who followed the Blackhawks and the team for decades — but among an entirely new audience.  Along the parade route today, which ran through Chicago’s Loop to the North Michigan Avenue bridge, the streets were lined with all manner of people:  Whites, African Americans, Hispanics — most wearing a sweater (that’s what they call hockey jerseys) or T-Shirt adorned with the great Blackhawk native American logo or some slogan.  That’s good PR for the sport of hockey, especially if these fans continue to support the team and the game.
  3. Parade Part of a Hat Trick of Big Events. The raucous parade and celebration to honor the Blackhawks was just one of three big events taking place in Chicago today.   Along my city’s spectacular lakefront, music fans gathered for the 2010 Chicago Blues Fest.  This year, the world’s largest free music event dedicated to the blues is a tribute to the legendary (aren’t all old blues guys “legendary?”) Howlin Wolf — perhaps the rawest and most incendiary of the real Delta bluesmen.  I never saw the real Wolf belt out the blues, but I visited the Fest and heard some guy who did a credible job of matching Wolf’s growl on “I Ain’t Superstitious.” And, on the North Side, my beloved Chicago Cubs were taking on the White Sox in the Crosstown Classic baseball series.  This year, both teams, to put it plainly, stink.  And, the Sox took the first game 10-5.   But this rivalry brought out fans and generated some excitement for America’s pastime in Chicago.  Celebrating the blues, from which jazz, rock and country were born, and a long-running baseball rivalry reflect the diversity of this great city.  That’s good PR for Chicago.
  4. And, Finally, Just Random Thoughts. Before meeting my friends for lunch, here’s what I thought and observed:
    • Will the Blackhawks be able to return the Cup to Chicago?  It’s hard enough to win it once.
    • What was the turning point in the 2009-2010 season for the Blackhawks?  When did they believe?
    • What will happen to the sweaters and shirts, banners and flags after today?  Will people put them away until next year?
    • Just observing today’s celebrating and taking notes made be feel like a newsman again.
    • And, finally, we dined outside at the Park Grill, which is in Millennium Park.  We we seated in the patio that in around six months will be turned into an outdoor ice skating rink.  How poetic.

BP Drills Their Way to an Oily Mess, Part II

Decades from now, when the catastrophic deep water oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is analyzed from a public relations perspective, this will sum up BP’s response to the environmental calamity:

One of the most powerful private companies on earth really did not have a concerted plan in place to communicate its response to what may be the most far-reaching environmental disaster of our time.

In all fairness to BP’s communications team, news changes on this subject seemingly by the day.   In the past seven days:  The “top kill” drilling method failed;  efforts continue to try to control and contain the oil and clean up the shore and marsh lands;  the lower marine rise package (LMRP) containment system device was enhanced;  local fisherman contracted to help with the containment are getting sick; and, the U.S. Justice Department has launched  civil and criminal investigations into what led to the April 20 oil rig explosion that killed 11 and created the spill.

To their credit, the BP web site established in the days following the accident has been updated more regularly and a new video delivered by a senior VP offers an easy-to-comprehend graphic depiction of work underway to stop the leak.

BP Vice President Kent Wells.

A full-page ad in today’s Chicago Tribune is marked by a single image of workers stretching an oil containment boom and the headline:  “We Will Make This Right.”  BP officials, including CEO Tony Hayward appear on camera and continue to offer explanation and hope for a solution.   (Mr. Hayward did apologize for his insensitive “I want my life back” quote.)

What we’re witnessing is an unprecedented crisis situation exacerbated by the fact that drilling for oil a mile below the sea is  engineering operation that’s relatively new.  How could BP’s communication’s team really prepare to manage a crisis for a procedure that’s still somewhat untested?

A few aspects of this disaster are clear cut:

  • BP was late in establishing a web site and providing transparency.
  • BP was late in providing a video feed of the ruptured well.
  • BP’s CEO clearly needs some media training — and fast.
  • BP needs to do a better job communicating what they’re doing to help those impacted by this disaster — now and in the future.

A few more things to consider:  The images we have now show seas tainted by brown oil, dead pelicans washed up on beaches and  Louisiana coastal marshes covered in muck. What will BP do to change that, and how will any efforts be communicated?  And, the accident that caused the leak is unprecedented; but should the Justice Department initiate legal action, BP will have to defend itself in U.S. courts of law.  There’s a lot of precedent there.