© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

BP: A Textbook Example Of How Not To Handle PR

In May 2010, then-BP CEO Tony Hayward gave a news conference at Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La.
Patrick Semansky
In May 2010, then-BP CEO Tony Hayward gave a news conference at Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La.

Part of a series on the communications industry

Within hours of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Glenn DaGian was on the phone.

He had retired a year earlier after working with BP and Amoco for 30 years. He wanted back in the game.

"Every day thereafter, for about a week, I kept saying, do you want my help, do you want my help?" he says.

DaGian watched from the sidelines as BP executives declared it was not their accident, blamed their contractors and made the company look arrogant and callous. The company's response has become a textbook example of how not to do crisis management.

I was literally yelling at the TV set. I thought that the first reactions should have been more humble and more conciliatory.

"I was literally yelling at the TV set," DaGian says. "I thought that the first reactions should have been more humble and more conciliatory. I was very upset that they didn't apologize. It sounded like they were hiding behind the lawyers' skirts."

Still, when BP called DaGian about a week into the disaster, he jumped into his car. BP sent him as an ambassador to groups of fishermen and other people across South Louisiana.

DaGian, who grew up in southwest Louisiana, chokes up when he remembers the encounters.

"They were so scared that they were going to lose their way of life," he says. "I really got real emotional about it."

His accent signaled that he shared their roots. At one meeting, a retired history teacher asked if he knew they were descendants of French pirates, and that long ago, British pirates raped and plundered their ancestors.

"And then she squeezes my hand and she says, 'Tell me, son, does BP stand for British pirates?'" he says. "And I had to explain to her that, no, we were not British pirates, and BP meant well, and we would fix the situation."

'Every Day He Was Making A New Gaffe'

DaGian knew one reason for the company's colossal PR missteps. CEO Tony Hayward had slashed BP's public- and government-relations shop to cut costs. So, Hayward was listening to outside consultants and rookies. They let him walk the beaches in a starched white shirt.

They didn't muzzle him despite repeated insensitive comments, like this one: "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I'd like my life back."

When a group of Louisiana state officials asked about Hayward, DaGian let his exasperation show.

"I said, 'The only time Tony Hayward opens his mouth was to change feet,' " DaGian recalls. "It seemed like every day he was making a new gaffe. He didn't understand the animal that is the media. He didn't understand the public's perception of a foreigner in south Louisiana."

Current BP officials wouldn't comment on the record for this story. But people familiar with the inside of BP's crisis control effort and outside experts say early on, BP didn't have a public relations strategy. It failed to communicate the three key messages the public needed to hear: That BP was accountable for the disaster, was deeply concerned about the harm it caused and had a plan for what to do.

Experts also agree that Hayward's propensity to say the wrong thing made him the wrong choice to be the face of the crisis, and BP's board took too long to figure that out.

"Clearly he did not mean to be mean, even though in some cases he came across that way," says Glenn Selig, a crisis management consultant whose clients include former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Selig says the company's PR advisers didn't serve Hayward well. Instead of rescuing his image, a slogan the company launched with a slick ad starring its CEO made things even worse.

"We will get this done, we will make this right," Hayward says in the ad.

Selig says it was like a doctor in an emergency room full of dying people telling family members that everything will be fine.

"They were putting out this message saying, 'Trust us. We'll be able to make things right,' at a time when they obviously couldn't. The oil was gushing like crazy and they couldn't cap it. I think that that was a horrible misstep," Selig says. "It's very hard to believe that everything is going to be OK when you're still in a crisis. What we need to hear at that point is, 'We're doing everything we can to get it under control.' "

A 'Failing Grade'

Clarke Caywood, director of Northwestern University's graduate public relations department, is working on a book that delves into BP's crisis response fiasco. Caywood says it was bad public relations for BP executives to initially cover up both the seriousness of the accident and their inability to quickly fix it.

"They should have been prepared to admit that they didn't have it under control, because they didn't have it under control," Caywood says.

And later on, when scientists found signs of huge plumes of oil in the deep water, Caywood says, BP executives were wrong to deny their existence.

"They were either uncomfortable with telling the truth or unable to tell the truth," he adds.

Caywood says he'd give the company's crisis management effort a "failing grade."

"While I think the company will survive, its reputation has been irreparably damaged," he says.

The Benefit Of Social Media

BP does get some compliments for replacing Hayward with Mississippi native Bob Dudley, creating an independent $20 billion compensation fund and running television ads that feature Gulf Coast natives.

And BP insiders say the company quickly ramped up its social media campaign, which helped counteract earlier PR failures.

"I think they did a great job, considering the pressure they were under on so many other fronts," says Steve Marino, a BP consultant who worked for Ogilvy & Mather at the time.

Marino came on board in mid-May to lead BP's fledgling social media team. Before the explosion, BP had no dedicated social media staff and only a couple-hundred followers on Facebook. Marino set up a YouTube channel. He says the detailed technical briefings posted there helped people understand what BP was up against.

During the peak of the crisis, tens of thousands of people were following BP on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Marino says people's rage toward the company came through loud and clear.

"We let people vent their anger and their frustration on Facebook or in response to any of the tweets that we put up there," says Marino, who now works for MSL Group. "I think the best thing that social media did was to give people that outlet and allow people to feel that BP was hearing them, which they were."

Twitter gave BP a way to get its news out fast — without the media in the middle. And it created a new way to interact with traditional media.

On the day BP finally capped the well, Marino's team was monitoring CNN when an expert guest incorrectly told viewers that something was amiss.

"When we were on the phone with the producer from CNN, we literally just told them to read the most recent tweet, and they used that tweet to correct the story," Marino recalls. "It was great to see social media be able to, in real time, get the right information out about such an important critical moment," Marino adds.

Yet BP's image is still in tatters. And retiree Glenn DaGian is still trying to help rescue it by pushing BP to do more to restore the Gulf Coast.

"I want to be able to proudly tell people I worked for BP. I don't want people to snicker by saying we were an environmental corporate criminal," he says.

He is determined not to end up like the people he knows who worked for Enron. BP will start doing the right thing, or he'll become the company's biggest critic.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.