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Levick Daily. Thoughts. Perspectives. Insights.


BP Must Assert Greater Control Over the Oil Spill Pictures and Story

Gene Grabowski

Last week, when it seemed that the environmental impacts of an oil rig explosion off Louisiana’s coast were on their way to being contained, I wrote in this space about the need for British Petroleum (BP) to aggressively communicate the steps it had taken, and would continue to take, to protect the people and wildlife of the Gulf Coast region. Since then, the situation has deteriorated – both in the Gulf and in the media, where BP has, unfortunately, missed a series of opportunities to shape an increasingly damaging narrative.

BP has done a remarkably effective job over the years in shifting its brand to “Beyond Petroleum” and has stood as a leader in the oil industry on its green-oriented approach. As BP CEO Tony Hayward said in a written response to the New York Times, “Reputationally, and in every other way, we will be judged by the quality, intensity, speed and efficacy of our response.”

That response, of course, will play out in the media. And as a first priority, BP is failing to manage the pictures of the crisis. Right now, stock footage and photos of indigenous animals in peril are telling a powerful story about what many expect to happen in the coming hours. Meanwhile, images of the massive clean-up effort – and the hard-working men and women that are carrying it out – are nowhere to be seen. At a time when BP can ill-afford to be perceived as a faceless corporate entity, this imbalance needs to be remedied.

In talking to reporters that are covering the story, I’ve heard that some of them have offered to come aboard the ships participating in the clean-up and sit in at BP headquarters to create on-site, real-time stories that would feature the very images BP should want to show the world. Thus far, however, BP hasn’t responded to those requests. Even if BP is worried about a report that could inflame the situation, it could always allow journalists access under the condition that their stories be embargoed until after the crisis is contained.

Furthermore, the statements BP has issued thus far have articulated a total lack of control at a time when audiences want to see the company exercise more leadership. When BP’s COO told viewers on the Today Show earlier this week “we’ll take help wherever we can get it,” he helped cement the perception that BP couldn’t handle the situation and that the federal government had to step in.

With the Obama Administration already starting to retract its recent support for off-shore drilling, BP – and the entire oil industry – has a great deal at stake in the coming weeks. Because the stakes are so high, BP must take a greater hand in telling its story. If it continues to miss these opportunities, the cost to BP and to the oil industry will be far greater than it need be.

Gene Grabowski is the Senior Vice President of Crisis and Litigation at Levick Strategic Communications, the nation’s top crisis communications firm He is also a contributing author to Bulletproof Blog. Connect with him @crisisguru.

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