British Petroleum still slippery after three years of oily mistakes


BP, BP, BP. What are we going to do with you?

You provide such great fodder for the crisis management business, month after month demonstrating with unsurpassed clarity and chilling emphasis what not to do in a crisis; showing how time after time even a terrible track record can be made even worse by fumbling public relations efforts. [Thanks to Eric Mower for flagging this most recent one.]

The litany runs to years, but let’s bring people up to date. Oil rig explodes, due to poor controls tied to cost cutting, killing 11; crude oil leaks unabated underwater in the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days as the world watches aghast and transfixed by the company’s compounded engineering incompetence; there is apparent lack of viable emergency planning, for water, beaches or crisis; company minimizes oil flow estimates at 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day and gets caught when it’s shown to be 62,000 a day; CEO chooses to race his yacht back in the pristine British Channel at mid-crisis; fouls beaches in four states, birds and fish and shellfish, jobs and family livelihoods lost.

Now, as lawsuits are finally being settled and there’s some semblance after almost three years that business is getting back to normal, BP acknowledges doctoring its Wikipedia page about the spill and its environmental record. Even though the company defends the effort as complying with Wiki editorial rules, readers would have no clue to the company’s involvement.

In its defense:

BP operates within Wikipedia’s guidelines for how company representatives should interact with the site’s editors. For nearly a year now, we have been fully transparent, never directly editing any copy and always disclosing that any suggestions we offer to Wikipedia’s editors have come from a BP representative. We have also acted objectively, often proposing language that contains negative information about the company. Our participation in the editorial process undoubtedly has resulted in greater accuracy, which after all should be the primary concern of everyone who relies on this resource for information.

This is of course not up there in damaging PR with pictures of slimed pelicans, but it compounds the feeling of corporate manipulation and distrust at a time when some fragile rebuilding of that trust was probably underway.

Self-inflicted mistakes are the worst, because they are unnecessary. Did someone at BP really think that changing its Wikipedia page about the spill would significantly improve public opinion?

And if so, that person or people had to have dismissed the downside, right? “What if we get caught?” And, finally, why didn’t they realize that they absolutely would get caught and be exposed?

We live in a world where a telescope can find the outer edges of the universe and determine it is 80 million years older than we thought. Do you really think Wiki editors can’t track down who changed the entries by putting the lipstick on the pig? [Sorry, not trying to insult pigs here.]

Really? Who else but BP, or someone working under its guidance, would have had an interest in changing its Wiki page’s account of its environmental record?

Can’t coach smart. But you can and should coach dumb.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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