BP's Branding Backfires

For the past 40-plus days, BP's devastated oil well has been gushing cautionary tales almost as fast as it's been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Executives should have listened to engineers who expressed misgivings about drilling technology. Corners should not have been cut. Regulators should have paid more attention to the company's plans. The president should have paid more attention to the regulators. Perhaps everyone should have thought twice before drilling an oil well a mile beneath the ocean's surface in the first place.

As a citizen of the world, I'm outraged by the environmental debacle that's unfolding. But as a PR professional, I'm fascinated by the reputation meltdown that BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward has been enduring.

The damage to his personal brand has been largely self-inflicted. Even before he was recorded on Memorial Day apologizing to the families of the 11 oil workers killed in the April 20 explosion and to the Gulf Coast residents whose livelihoods are in jeopardy by saying, "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back," he was mishandling his messaging.

In an article headlined "BP's CEO Tony Hayward: The Most Hated--and Most Clueless--Man in America," New York's conservative Daily News recapped a few of his gaffes so far: He called the Gulf of Mexico "tiny." He downplayed the illnesses of cleanup workers and the environmental consequences of the spill, claimed there was no underwater oil plume and, said the article, "started to look increasingly arrogant."

On the other side of the spectrum, the liberal blog Think Progress went into more detail, pointing out that as recently as last Sunday, he denied university researchers' reports of "plumes of what appears to be oil" --based on "video images and initial observations of water samples"--and said, "The oil is on the surface." But who's going to believe him after he said in a Sky News video weeks ago that the disaster's environmental impact would be "very, very modest"?

And virtually everyone is taking BP (and Hayward, as it chief) to task for limiting journalists' access, withholding and even fabricating information, and attempting to cut off the live video feed--cardinal sins in this era when transparency is PR rule No. 1. It's no surprise that he's been reported to be struggling to hold onto his job. His personal brand is beyond tarnished. Perhaps "slicked in oil and left to suffocate" is a better metaphor.

Hayward and BP have been working on damage control. He quickly apologized for the wanting-his-life-back comment, and the company has taken full responsibility for the spill. But communications pros are wondering if it's too little too late. Ad Age reported that BP has been running full-page ads in newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post that read, in part, "We will get it done. We will make this right."

I think Carreen Winters, executive VP of corporate communications at Interpublic Group of Cos.' MWW, spoke for a lot of us in the PR industry when she told Ad Age, "It's less about the timing of advertising, and more about the fact that BP's statements about it accepting responsibility are ringing hollow.... At this point, they will only get traction with that message if we see it in action."

Or, as a commenter on a Huffington Post piece about the TV version of these ads put it, "Talk is cheap, Tony."

My colleague George Gallate, global chairman of Euro RSCG 4D, told me: "I've been staggered by all aspects of the disaster, none more so than the devastation to the environment and the lives of so many people. A lot of it seems to have been caused by a lack of respect for people, for the environment and possibly for the law. Of less consequence, but still staggering, is BP's lack of respect and care for their own brand and their communication. Their 'damage control' communication is heaping more damage on top of them."

Meanwhile, social media is letting consumers talk back and take over the conversation. The Twitter handle @BPglobalPR, which satirizes the company's efforts to clean up the Gulf and its own reputation, now has more than 120,000 followers, about 10 times the number following BP's official feed. In a blog manifesto, the handle's creator, Leroy Stick, wrote: "You know the best way to get the public to respect your brand? Have a respectable brand."

Stick took his name from a stick his dad used to keep a vicious neighborhood dog named Leroy at bay. In his post, he wrote: "...if someone is terrorizing your neighborhood, sometimes it's alright to grab a stick and take a swing. Social media, and in this particular case Twitter, has given average people like me the ability to use and invent all sorts of brand new sticks."

BP is using old tactics to defend against these brand-new sticks. Its latest messaging might have been effective at the beginning of the disaster. But now, after weeks of downplaying and denying, Hayward and BP must do a whole lot more than run sincere-sounding advertising. They need to prove that they mean those words and make good on their promises. They'd be wise to also invest in rebuilding their reputation--they were actually an industry leader back in March--and developing new channels to communicate with all their audiences.

The latest tack BP has taken toward that last goal is particularly confounding. The company named a new head of American media operations: Ann Womack-Kolton, who served as a press officer for Dick Cheney and as a Department of Energy spokeswoman during the Bush administration.

It's hard to imagine a PR move that is itself more likely to generate bad PR than hiring a former Cheney press officer. "It defies belief that BP could be this inept," a Democratic Capitol Hill staffer told the Financial Times. That paper also pointed out that the liberal think tank Center for American Progress has branded the Deepwater Horizon disaster "Cheney's Katrina," arguing that its origins lie in the "cosy ties" between regulators and industry that began with what the publication calls Cheney's "controversial" energy task force in 2001.

Cheney and Bush are polarizing figures in any context. But for an oil company facing charges of major malfeasance? Perhaps BP was trying to invoke media figures who have even worse reputations and more damaged personal brands than Hayward. It's hard to think of another explanation.