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PR Is No Substitute For The Truth

Jun 9, 2010
by Vanessa Horwell


Reprinted from www.mediapost.com

When I wrote a column about BP last month, I wasn’t expecting to a) eat my words, or b) write about BP again so soon.

But alas, here we are.

At the time of my column, “Advice To BP That It Didn’t Ask For,” I and several PR peeps felt that BP had been transparent, genuinely not at fault and were doing the best they could in the terrible circumstances à la “it was all Transocean’s fault Ma, honest.”

I hate being wrong but we were wrong. Very wrong.

It’s hard to feel sorry for liars. It’s even harder to feel sorry for those people and companies that deliberately mismanage information and mislead the public for financial gain (hello, Goldman Sachs).

But what is absolutely sinful about BP’s actions — and there are many — is the company’s blatant disrespect for our intellect, for our country and for our lives. You may feel I’m getting off PR-focus here, but the fact remains that when a company tries to sustain a sheen of purity in the midst of massive oil slicks, toxic shrimp and environmental seppuku, PR and “positioning” is no substitute for the truth.

We believed Tony Hayward and we believed BP. But they lied to us and to themselves.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Taking back what I said a month ago, no amount of full-page mea culpas pasted in all the country’s major broadsheets will change public perception right now — or anytime soon. In fact, these ads may just have the reverse effect when you consider the millions being plundered from fixing the problem, and being diverted to the “We’re going to fix this” ad campaign instead. I don’t buy it and no one else should either.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

It appears that no one believes anything that BP has to say, tweet or print anymore, and that it has lost all credibility and control of its brand.

Case in point? A new Twitter account called BPGlobalPR, a satirical send-up of BP’s blunders. With 130,000 followers and counting, it quickly provides a sense for the level of mistrust and hatred that is cursing through America’s veins, online and off. When compared with the 12,000 followers on BP’s feed, BP-America, it’s clear that people have tuned out from the grimace-inducing comments issued by BP, much preferring comments like “Money can’t buy happiness. But Tony Hayward did buy a giant yacht he calls ‘Happiness’. It has a frickin’ helicopter pad on it!” and “Flew in a ton of seafood from Asia last night, ate almost half of it and slept for 12 straight hours. What a weekend! #bpcares” on the faux BP blog.

So now that almost everyone knows about BP’s misinformation strategy, I tried to imagine what Thomas Friedman or John Stossel would have to say about the company. Sadly, neither were available for comment when I contacted them last week, so I have taken a creative liberty in recreating their imagined responses:

Friedman: It’s hard to discuss the current crisis without some measure of hyperbole, so I won’t even try to avoid it: BP represents all that is soulless and unholy about the energy industry.

Stossel: C’mon Tom. That’s a bit much. They’re just a business (OK, a giant, globe-encompassing, multibillion-dollar quarterly profit kind of business) trying to meet demand for its product. And with any business (to paraphrase my good buddy Rand Paul) sometimes s#*! happens.

Friedman: You’re right about one thing: the demand for BPs product is the root problem. And if there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that we Americans are being confronted with a visceral example of what our addiction to oil is producing, which may (fingers crossed!) lead us to making real changes.

Stossel: So if this is just a natural byproduct of the business of oil production, why is everyone so up in arms about the corporate response? Why can’t BP just say, “Our bad, we’ll fix it, now just leave us be.”?

Friedman: John, this is clearly a case for greater oversight and tighter regulation. Have you forgotten that BP accounted for 97% of all ‘egregious and willful’ safety violations in the last 3 years? This speaks to their image problem as well; the public is watching a CEO making just under $1 million in annual salary whine about wanting his life back when the consistently slipshod operations of his company have cost thousands of Gulf coast residents their livelihoods.

The Biggest Liar(s)

I tend to side with my fictitious Tom Friedman. There is genuine public resentment toward BP, and it’s not being driven by political rhetoric or simple financial envy. It comes from the same place as the outcry following 2008’s financial crisis: from a massive breach of trust, from incredulity at the lack of urgency being demonstrated, from persistent profit-taking while others suffer, and yes, from a latent guilt, knowing that our appetites put us in a position where these behemoth corporations can take full advantage of us.

These are basic, raw reactions on the public’s part — and they are legitimate. No amount of spin will counter them.

So BP, really: the truth shall set you free. Honestly. Trust me.

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