Updated on April 21, 2016
by Steve Dishart, Executive Director, Blue Ocean Institute
BP’s public relations blunders in mismanaging the massive Deepwater Horizon oil blowout will be a lesson for generations of professional communicators. The firm’s public response in the wake of the disaster will serve as the antithesis to the positive story of Johnson & Johnson and its handling of the Tylenol case. PR aside, its attack on the ocean with toxic dispersants is downright deadly; maybe even to BP.
The J&J quick, open, honest response to the tragic deaths caused in 1982 by cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules has been recognized for decades as the right way to handle a tragic accident. BP’s slow, misleading and destructive response will serve as how to do it wrong. Really wrong.
BP has misled the public by interfering with efforts to measure the spill rate and it is doing even greater damage by using toxic chemicals to disperse the oil. Both mistakes will haunt the firm for decades: Not telling the truth, and covering up once you know the truth are the classic mistakes made countless times by those in trouble. Richard Nixon comes to mind, but so do Enron and Parmalat. BP has gone beyond the pathetic approaches by those villains by going one better: using chemical dispersants to keep the oil unseen at the cost of making the oil pollute the water with no recovery possible.
Keeping the oil within a smaller area would make it easier to pick up. But BP chose to spread it out using toxic chemicals, that are themselves harmful pollutants. It appears that in trying to hide the mess by spreading it and sinking it, BP went beyond the misinformation and cover-up formulas of Nixon, Enron and Parmalat, to add a magician-like misdirection to its approach.
This is not a condemnation of public relations, a profession that strives to adhere to the principals of one of its founders, Arthur W. Page. The Page Principles start with “Tell the truth.” However, BP management didn’t listen. I can’t imagine the head of BP’s communications, BP’s PR agency or anyone with a shred of expertise would have suggested an attempt to hide a multi-million gallon oil gusher 40 miles off the US coast.
Did BP really think that by killing more ocean life under the surface they would avoid the public outcry?
It’s 2010 and we can all see below the surface of a tragedy, both figuratively and literally. Having gone through an economic downturn caused by greed, we tend to look deeper and ask why. Thanks to technology, we also have live streaming video of the oil gushing out of the well a mile below the surface. To its credit, BP is supplying the live video feed. To its discredit, as reported in The Huffington Post and confirmed by many others on site, BP has tried to keep scientists and other observers away from the gushing blowout. But, most importantly, in 2010 we have the social media: the bloggers, the citizen journalists, Facebook, Twitter and more to keep the pressure on and not let a story go away just because it’s mostly hidden from the naked eye.
Perhaps BP thought time, other news and short attention spans would distract the world while it made a horrific accident worse with deliberately trying to put the oil out of sight and out of mind. As if its lack of preparation to handle such a deep spill wasn’t enough, the chemicals being dumped into the water are making it harder to clean. BP’s actions are turning fisheries into dead zones, disrupting an entire ecosystem and destroying the livelihoods of men and women who harvest the oceans. Of course, the killing of magnificent animals, harm to habitat and loss of biodiversity will also be BP’s legacy for years. Further, there are concerns now about the dispersants evaporating into the air and directly impacting human health.
Leading scientists are speaking out against the use of the toxic dispersants and the world is listening. Speaking to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment May 21, 2010, Blue Ocean Institute President, Dr. Carl Safina, explained how the use of dispersants is not only toxic, but it also makes it impossible to recover the oil.
In quickly adopting the dispersant approach, BP demonstrated its lack of planning and preparation. It’s the same reason they had to build a container box to go over the well after it blew up, killing 11 crew members. Speaking at the same Congressional hearing, another leading scientist, Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, said, “It doesn’t take great imagination to realize why we should fear drilling in the Arctic . . . We should fear lack of preparedness to drill anywhere.”
Being prepared for most of us means having a smoke detector in the house. A fire extinguisher is Plan B, and many people have a plan C escape plan. However, after opening the spigot on a wellhead one mile below the surface of the ocean, BP had no plan B for when its blowout preventer didn’t work. If there was a Plan C, it appears to be trying to hide the unprecedented scope of the disaster.
There is certainly a great deal of blame to go around. Transocean notwithstanding, there are many contractors and subcontractors facing litigation, fines and more. Reports of regulatory lapse and the Obama Administration’s role are all coming into question. But it is BP at the front and center and it will be BP that suffers the stigma in the aftermath.
As for lessons learned from the PR front, BP’s executives should get some better advice if they don’t want the tragedy to be fatal. First, stop spreading the toxic chemicals and stop misleading the public. Second, come clean about everything, starting with the actual amount of oil gushing into the sea. The reputation has already been permanently and painfully wrecked. Any further obfuscation and ill-conceived attempts to spread the oil and the blame, will take the firm down.
After decades working in public relations, I’m disappointed and surprised that BP tried the old mistakes of lying and covering up. As the executive director of a not-for-profit working to protect our oceans, I’m horrified that an attempt to hide the oil is exacerbating the attack on the environment.