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Wednesday, 9 June 2010


Amiera Sawas

British Petroleum, like many natural resources companies have enjoyed a turbulent reputation. In many ways they are caught between a rock and a hard place; with the global demand for commodities like oil growing rapidly to sustain economic development, juxtaposed with increasing demands from environmental spokespeople and even now, US State Senators to cut back on offshore drilling.

BP has done a lot to rebuild its reputation after the 2005 Texas refinery disaster. Tony Hayward’s advent to CEO was marked by his famous words that he would “focus like a laser on safety” and whose actions rebuilt BP’s lost reputation in the years since. Unfortunately, BP’s great work in improving its reputation since 2005 has all come crashing down in recent weeks with the 20th April oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

What has been more important is the management of BP’s reputation since the 20th April. While some activities have shown BP’s sophistication and experience in reputation management, the lack of a coherent and consistent approach across stakeholders and mediums will hamper their reputation in the long term.

Let us dissect the post-spill communications activities:

Building Reputation Equity:

a) While BP has not taken responsibility of the events that led to the spill so to speak, they did instantly claim accountability for the cleanup. Instant action was appreciated by multiple stakeholders as the common interest was to prevent as much damage as possible.

b) BP’s digital communications have been of a very high calibre: shortly after the spill began they set up a section of their website, http://www.bp.com/extendedsectiongenericarticle.do?categoryId=40&contentId=7061813, on their response with virtually realtime updates, pictures, maps and even videos of the cleanup and the people and technology driving it. At the same time they developed a twitter feed, complete with hotlines for people to call should they have any concerns.

Challenging Reputation Equity:

a) BP attributed no names, faces or personal stories about those injured/killed in the explosion. They held no press conferences with the family or media about those killed; giving the impression to some that they were avoiding accountability.

b) Spokespeople initially declared that around 1000 barrels of oil per day were being released into the Gulf of Mexico. This was later found to be incorrect and BP was seen to either be lacking the knowledge or downplaying the extent of the damage. If they did not know, in order to preserve trust in their stakeholders, they should have admitted that they didn’t know. What’s more disconcerting, is that BP has since refused scientists requests to use sophisticated instruments to form a much more accurate picture of how much oil is being released into the Gulf.

c) Testimony at the Senate Committee highlighted some weaknesses and inconsistencies in verbal communications. It became clear that there was no consensus on ‘whom’ BP would be rewarding for damages and whether BP was infact ‘equipped’ to handle the response (as claimed in a Health and Safety document to the US Federal Government in Feb 2009) as they admitted to the senate they were uncertain as they had never tested the response.

d) The Blame Game – BP’s Tony Hayward continues to perform on the media circuit, putting a face to the BP name in order to retain or foster some trust in the brand. However the decision to deny public accountability and divert the blame to Deepwater Horizon, unlike after the 2005 disaster, has done little to grow reputation equity for BP. The choice to declare “It wasn’t our accident but we’ll clean it up” attempted to pay dividence to a responsible and leading corporate citizen but infact implicated Deepwater Horizon alone. Infact, since these statements many have spoken out about BPs choice in minimising safety procedures to maximise profits, which we believe is now the key area BP needs to be focussing on to protect its long term reputation.

e) Famous last words? – “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” Hayward’s insinuation that the spill was little or ‘tiny’ will no doubt cultivate anger amongst some stakeholders, who have suffered or have witnessed great damage as a result of the spill. It takes a long time to build strong reputations, but only a minute to create lasting reputation legacies.

Future challenges: consistency and safety

At ReputationInc we know the importance of consistency in corporate communications in building and maintaining stakeholder trust and strong long-term reputations. The inconsistent approach displayed by BP from being the ‘fast acting responsible citizen’, to the ‘elusive corporation’, to the ‘mixed messages and incoherent knowledge’ to the ‘blame game’ approach has in turn caused great levels of speculation about motives, corporate cover ups and inevitably reduced trust in the brand.

We work with many diverse clients, implementing stakeholder communications and reputation strategy plans and our approach would have been to develop the strategy from a multi-stakeholder centre and ensure it was coherent before cascaded down to BPs numerous spokespeople. Also, this opens a question about how/whether BP validated its initial messaging on the issue. Therefore we would also comment that integrating reputation strategy into business strategy is much harder than it would appear.

One of the most alarming results of the BP spill is the attack on the brand. The brand is being rejected as a corporate citizen, for example ‘art not oil’ activists in London putting pressure on the Tate Modern to ‘liberate itself’ from a company creating the biggest oil painting in the world, inspired by profit margins and a culture that puts money in front of life’. It has also now become a hobby for the graphically minded to ‘reinvent’ the BP logo, rebranding the company as ‘British Polluters’, ‘British Poison’ and ‘Big Problem’. May 2010 even saw the Director of communications of Greenpeace scaling the BP headquarters in Mayfair to plant a rebranded logo above the front door. Going forward, BP will have to mitigate this citizen rebranding and create opportunities for positive messages and stories around the BP brand.

BP must re-evaluate its focus on health and safety and ensure this is communicated to all stakeholders. BP must also ride the storm to come effectively and regain multi-stakeholder belief in the statement “we’re going to focus like a laser on safety”.

Amiera Sawas has been a consultant at ReputationInc since 2008

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