BP: A Textbook Example Of How Not To Handle PR

Apr 21, 2011
Originally published on May 13, 2011 12:13 pm

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," 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 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

Public relations is very big business, and over the next month, we're going to look at the PR industry, who does it, how it works, and the extent of its influence. Our first story is about a PR disaster. It came one year ago this week, when that oil rig drilling a well for BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, BP's response was a textbook example of how not to do public relations in a crisis.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Within hours of the Deep Water 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.

LOUISE KELLY: Everyday thereafter, for about a week, I kept saying, do you want my help, do you want my help?

SHOGREN: DaGian watched from the sidelines as BP executives made the company look arrogant and callous. They declared it wasn't their accident and blamed their contractors.

LOUISE KELLY: And I was literally yelling at the TV set. I thought that the first reactions from BP 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 lawyer's skirts.

SHOGREN: Were they?

LOUISE KELLY: In my opinion, they were.

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

LOUISE KELLY: They were so scared that they were going to lose their way of life. I really got real emotional about it.

SHOGREN: His accent told them 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.

LOUISE KELLY: And then she squeezes my hand and she says, now tell me son, does BP stand for British Pirates? And I had to explain to her that no. We were not British pirates, and BP meant well and we would fix the situation.

SHOGREN: But DaGian's efforts were eclipsed by the company's PR missteps. DaGian knew one reason the company was so unprepared. 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.

LOUISE KELLY: There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I'd like my life back.

LOUISE KELLY: It seemed like every day he was making a new gaff. He didn't understand the animal that is the media. He didn't understand the public's perception of a foreigner in south Louisiana.

SHOGREN: So, when a group of Louisiana state officials asked about Hayward, DaGian didn't hold back.

LOUISE KELLY: I said, well, the only time Tony Hayward opens his mouth was to change feet.

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

LOUISE KELLY: Clearly, he did not mean to be mean, even though in some cases he came across that way.

SHOGREN: Glenn Selig is a crisis management consultant whose clients include former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Selig says instead of rescuing Hayward's image, a slogan the company adopted made things even worse.

LOUISE KELLY: We will get this done, we will make this right.

LOUISE KELLY: They were putting out this messaging, 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.

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

LOUISE KELLY: 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.

SHOGREN: 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 the company to cover up the seriousness of the accident and that BP wasn't ready to fix it.

LOUISE KELLY: They should have been prepared, I think, to admit that they probably didn't have it under control because they didn't have it under control.

SHOGREN: 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.

LOUISE KELLY: They were either uncomfortable with telling the truth or unable to tell the truth.

SHOGREN: What grade would you give the PR or crisis management effort?

LOUISE KELLY: I'd have to go with a grade, that in our graduate school, would be a failing grade.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

LOUISE KELLY: I know people are wondering, now that the well is capped, is BP going to meet its commitments? I was born in New Orleans. My family still lives here. I'm going to be here until we make this right.

SHOGREN: And BP insiders say the company's social media ramp-up helped counteract earlier PR failures.

LOUISE KELLY: I think they did a great job considering the pressure they were under on so many other fronts.

SHOGREN: Steve Marino came on board as a consultant in mid-May to lead BP's 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 towards the company came through loud and clear.

LOUISE KELLY: We let people vent their anger and their frustration on Facebook or in response to any of the tweets that we had put up there. I think the best thing that social media did was to give people that outlet and allow them to feel that BP was hearing them, which they were.

SHOGREN: Twitter gave BP a way to get its news out fast, without the press in the middle. And it created a new way to interact with traditional media. On the day BP finally capped the well, Marino was monitoring CNN. He heard an expert guest incorrectly tell viewers that something was amiss.

LOUISE KELLY: When we were on the phone with the producer of CNN, we literally just told them to read the most recent tweet and they used that tweet to correct the story.

SHOGREN: Yet BP's image is still in tatters. Retiree Glenn DaGian wants to help BP rescue it by pushing the company to do more to restore the Gulf Coast.

LOUISE KELLY: I want to be able to proudly tell people I worked for BP. I don't want people to snicker by saying that we were an environmental corporate criminal.

SHOGREN: DaGian says BP will start doing the right thing, or he'll become the company's biggest critic.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISE KELLY: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.