Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Can BP Recover?

It's been a week since our last posting and while we've missed a few PR and social media stories along the way, the one big PR story hasn't changed a bit.  A trip to L.A. a weekend catching up on sleep and there's still an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and BP still hasn't figured out how to clean up the mess, or its image.

The problem for BP is, it might be easier to clean up the oil spill than it is to remake their image in the wake of this disaster.  Can it be done?  I don't think so.  But that doesn't mean I don't think BP can rise again, but I'll get to that in a minute.

 First, we have to take a good hard look at what BP is facing once they finally get the oil leak plugged and the cleanup underway.  Let's face it, this is a PR task unlike any other in the history of PR.  You could point to the Exxon Valdez incident decades ago.  How did Exxon make out with that?

The point is, this isn't like Coca Cola scrambling to get themselves out from under the "New Coke" fiasco.  This is more like trying to turn Osama Bin Laden into a loveable figure in the West.  It's nearly undoable, if not downright impossible.

And yet, where there is hope...

We've posted here before about how to recover from a PR nightmare.  There are the traditional crisis communications techniques that have been proven to work.  In case you missed them, here they are:

1.  Acknowledge (the problem)
2.  Accept (the responsibility)
3.  Apologize
4.  Fix (both short term and long term)

There's a fifth element that, depending on the scope of the problem may or may not be necessary.  This one entails giving back and actively recruiting former adversaries as partners.  As a small business owner or non-profit, you, hopefully, won't ever be involved in a PR disaster that will require you to employ this technique.  Although we're hoping you already give back to the community, you aren't required to do business with your mortal enemies unless you really want to.

This fifth element can be costly both in dollars and in company culture.  It can reflect a potential sea-change in values and direction for the company that is embroiled in a scandal as large as the one BP finds itself in today.  Sometimes, this is a good thing.

A few Good Ideas:

Yes, the task ahead for BP is daunting, but it can be done, albeit very, VERY carefully.  Let's first take a look at some of the ways BP can begin to clean up its public image.  This list comes from a recent article in USA Today and reflects many of the ideas I had when trying to figure out how BP can recover from this mess.  You can click here to see the entire article.
•Go ultra-green. BP should become the oil industry's pro-environment leader with a number of substantive, concrete actions, say Lynne Doll, president of The Rogers Group, a crisis communications specialist.
•Offer free gasoline. The free gas should go to churches, schools and charities in affected areas, and steep discounts should go to area residents for a specific time period, says Gene Grabowski, senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis management specialist.
•Assemble a panel. It should be an independent panel of experts to take the long view of the crisis, Grabowski says.
•Listen to residents. The best way to build credibility is by listening instead of talking, says Blake Lewis, a crisis communications specialist and board member of the Public Relations Society of America. BP should host regular town meetings with community members.
•Personalize BP. Make public heroes of community members and BP workers who took extraordinary actions, Doll says.
•Fire the culprit. The person judged ultimately responsible for the leak should get the ax, whether it's the head of deepwater drilling or the CEO, Doll says.
•Poll the public. Regular, in-depth public polling should take place now and for months to come to find out what actions the public supports and what actions it doesn't, Doll says.
•Share the data. All that BP learns should be shared with government officials, academics and rivals, Lewis says. "BP has an awesome responsibility to be a good steward of information."
•Be humble. After the oil leak stops, don't brag, Lewis warns. "There should be no first-person declarations of victory."
•Change its name. Some negative name baggage can't be fixed. It's why ValuJet, scarred by a 1996 crash, is now AirTran and it's why Philip Morris tobacco became Altria in 2003, Doll says. "It's a huge undertaking that will be problematic and expensive, but it has to be done."
You'll notice that nearly all of these solutions will cost money, lots and lots of money.  Again, fortunately, for most small businesses and non-profits, you won't have to go to these extremes, but there are lessons to be learned from these actions.
A Major Change:
First and foremost, the top two suggestions indicate a change of values, or at least a perception of a change of values.  After working with Shell Oil in Colorado, I believe that most energy companies have at least some green values.  Call my cynical, but they have to.  In today's world, companies that ignore the green issue do so at their own peril.  The U.S. government as well as a majority of the population cares about preserving the environment in some way.  In other words, oil and gas companies simply can't storm into a pristine environment, strip it of its natural resources and leave it to fend for itself when they're done.  

I don't know BP's green reputation.  I would bet that the majority of Americans don't either.  And that's the problem.  Before this disaster, I would guess that BP wasn't a blip on the radar for most Americans.  They couldn't tell you if they invested in wind power or hydrogen research or oil shale or if they took the time to recover the environments they worked in.

Now, the perception is that BP is an environmental hazard.  All the good works BP has done up to this point is lost.  Right or wrong, that is the perception that I believe most will have as we move forward from this situation.

So going ultra-green might be the only way to begin any kind of recovery.  The suggestion to give away free gas is also a start, but it's a tricky one.  The last thing BP needs is to be percieved as a company that is trying to bribe its way out of this mess.  Throwing money at the problem won't work.  They have to institute a policy that offers free gas to organizations that really need it, and it has to be a long-term policy, not just a one-year deal.

Don't Spin Me!

PR isn't rocket science.  Most people can see it in action and they know when they're being spun.  That's the problem with BP's recovery; every step they take to recover will be seen by many as simpy a PR ploy.  People will appreciate the free gas, and they'll be happy that BP is going ultra-green, but there will always be a skeptical eye cast upon the company as people say, "That's nice, but has there been any substantive change to make sure something like this never happens again?"

This is where being humble and transparent comes into play.  Normally, oil and gas companies are as tightly locked down as Fort Knox.  BP can't afford to be anymore.  They have to open their company up, pull back the curtain and let the citizenry see the wizard, see the mechanations at work, they have to let the public see just about every aspect of its operations before the public will begin to trust that change has indeed been made.

Firing the culprit is a good place to start, but I have a better idea; fire the CEO.  Yes, he wasn't the one who forgot to close a valve or maintain the pipes or train the workers.  But, like a famous President once said, "The Buck Stops Here."  Fair or not, this happened on his watch.  Leaving current CEO Tony Hayward in place won't engender a ton of trust in BP moving forward.  In order for the public to believe that BP has indeed made significant changes, those changes will have to begin at the top.

If BP won't flat out fire Hayward, then at the very least, replace him as the face of the organization.  So far he has been nothing short of a PR disaster as he tries to explain away the "accident".  He has insulted Americans, tried to diminish the impact of the disaster and basically been a bit of a lout in interviews and public appearances.  He hasn't been contrite or overly apologetic to this point.  Even if he doesn't personaly feel bad about the spill, at least try to appear apologetic.  I believe a change in the face of BP would be a great help as the company tries to distance itself from this mess.

Lessons Learned:

Obviously, we all hope that BP has learned some valuable, if not extremely painful, lessons from this whole experience.  But are there any lessons to be gleaned from this for the small business community and non-profits out there?

Of course there are.  First, take a look at those suggestions from the USA Today article.  Then take a look at my comments regarding BP's green reputation.  One of the most important commodities any business can trade on is its name and its reputation.  If you wait until there's a problem to begin outreach or devise a PR plan, you're already way too late.

Why not be active in your community and in your outreach efforts now, when things aren't crumbling all around you?  Be active and more importantly, be vocal about it.  Use your social media platforms and PR efforts to make sure that your efforts are at the very least recorded. 

You don't need to, or want to for that matter, beat the drum constantly telling everyone how wonderful you are for running a soup kitchen or giving away clothes to the homeless or donating time and money to local arts and schools.  You simply need to promote the particulary charity and attach your name to it.  Be visible, but don't be at the forefront all the time. 

Another important aspect is to create a message that reveals your involvement in, and commitment to, local charities.  Mention it during interviews, put it in your social media messages, make sure it's visible in your PR efforts.  Letting people know that you care about the community and that you're involved without bragging about it is one of the best uses of social media and PR strategies.

If you do this, then if and when something disasterous happens to your organization, you can ramp up your outreach efforts and point to your history of charity so it doesn't look like a one-time effort or a bribe.

What's In A Name?

And then we come to the name change.  Unlike most small businesses and non-profits where the brand name can mean the difference between success and failure, BP can afford to make this move.  Small businesses and non-profits spend years establishing their name in their neighborhoods and towns so that people immediately recognize them and know what they do.  A name change would mean the loss of all the repuation, hard work and brand recognition and loyalty that had been built over the years.  In short, it's practically a death knell for small biz and non-profits.

For larger companies, though, it's essentially like restarting the company from scratch.  In most instances, the companies have deep enough pockets to make this change.  They can create an entirely new marketing strategy and rebrand the new company in a way that removes it from its sordid past.  It's questionable, though, in this instance if this move will work.  

With social media and the influx of information that bombards us every day, is there any way that BP can change its name without that name forever being linked to BP and this disaster?  It's likely that regardless of what new name BP comes up with, it will still be BP to millions of people across the world.

For this to work, BP needs to restructure, change the name and emerge from this disaster as an entirely new oil and gas company, complete with new values, new goals and a new kind of transparency.

In other words, BP has to die in order for it to survive.  Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, BP has to be completely burned to the ground before it can re-emerge, rebuild and revive. 

This is where social media as well as PR will help BP, or whatever it will be called, as it moves forward.  If BP is smart, they will utilize social media in an effort to reach out to organizations that can help it rebuild its image or create a new one for whatever new name they come up with.

Using social media will also allow it to interact with the millions of people who are outraged over the spill and begin to mend bridges on a more personal, one-on-one level.  Press conferences and talking heads and news articles with conciliatory quotes only goes so far.  To really begin to repair the damage, BP leadership will have to do it one person at a time and social media can help that process immensely. 

If BP is smart, they will take a page from Coke and let the people have a say in some of the decisions BP makes as it moves forward.  I'm not talking about where to drill, but certainly they could open up their social media platforms for feedback on what kind of research to fund, or on long-term clean up solutions and even what non-profits to help with free gas or environmental conservation.  Simply by letting the public in the door, allowing them to let their voice be heard, people will begin to rebuild the trust that has been lost during this situation.

So, no, BP can't recover from this disaster.  But it can survive and rise again, even if it's in a different form.  It's likely that within a few years, BP won't exist and the company that today is strugging to clean up the oil spill will look completely different, with a new name and new direction under new leadership.  

Recover?  Not likely.  Rebuild?  Absolutely.

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