The Washington Post leads this morning on how the critical players in the Gulf disaster are all hiring public relations consultants like they are going out of fashion to try and repair their battered and bruised images.
BP, according to the paper, “has assembled a formidable team of Democrats for its Washington lobbying and public-relations offensive.”
BP faces many, many pressing problems from a PR perspective, but probably two are utmost in the mind of the company.
First is to stop the gushing well. Apart from the daily ecological catastrophe of thousands of barrels of oil pouring into the sea, from a media and public perspective as long as the oil continues to gush, BP will always be on the defensive.
One BP advisor tells the Washington Post that “This is just an avalanche that almost nobody could keep up with. It’s very, very challenging … it is very difficult to get ahead of this. Normally, it’s an event that’s over that you’re trying to address. But this event is not over.”
If and when BP plugs the leak it can say that this is the beginning of the end of this disaster rather than a disaster with no end.
The other problem is what do to about Tony Hayward, whose long line of gaffes is rapidly becoming a story in its own right, no matter what his company is doing in the Gulf.
His latest well publicised gaffe is to go sailing on Saturday on his part-owned yacht.
You would have thought that – even if this was Hayward’s first day off since the disaster – that he would do something discretely. Away from the cameras.
Because sailing is something the Gulf Coast residents have not been able to do much off recently – because of Hayward’s spill.
Ian Monk, one of Britain’s leading PR gurus has said of the outing”: I think as far as personal reputation management is concerned, it’s death wish stuff.” He said Hayward’s “furtive and insouciant” outing left him looking like “a dead man walking”.
Max Clifford, the famed British publicist told the Times: “I can only think that someone at BP has really, really got it in for him. Either he’s being deliberately steered into becoming the most demonised man in the world, or the man has got absolutely no clue about PR and public perception.” Clifford added: “He is becoming the devil incarnate. It is a PR disaster for him.”
President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, criticised the trip too. “It was a big mistake,” Mr Emanuel said of the boating trip. “That’s clearly a PR mistake, but he’s made a number of those mistakes . . . to quote Tony Hayward, he has got his life back. I think we can all conclude that Tony Hayward is not going to have a second career in PR consulting.”
Hayward’s propensity to shoot himself in the foot has seriously made him a PR liability that has many normally loyal allies scathing.
Take the leader in today’s Times. Under the headline “Beyond Parody” it says: “BP’s CEO should be serving his company, not shaming it.”
It continued: ““If you wanted to script the absolute worst possible corporate response to an oil disaster, there are a few key elements you would be foolish to miss.
First, as the enormity of the environmental damage became clear, you would want your chief executive to say something along the lines of “relative to the size of the ocean, the amount of spilled oil is pretty small”. Thereafter, and at every available opportunity, you should publicly underestimate the size of the spill, by a factor of at least ten and arguably up to 50.
You should express extreme confidence in measures being attempted to stop the spill, even if they have never been tried before, thereby cultivating the impression when they inevitably fail that you didn’t really know what you were doing. While your CEO should appear merely hapless, your chairman should be invisible. There should be no company spokesmen who come from the country in which the disaster is is taking place.
When your chairman does, finally, arrive, he should do so apparently as part of a mini-break, accompanied by his girlfriend. Taken to task by a hostile and demagogic president, he should protest that your company does, in fact, care about “the small people”, and not understand why this is so offensive. Your CEO, meanwhile, should appear shifty and evasive when questioned by Congress. Then, while the world’s media is still watching, he should go yachting. Staggeringly, BP has done all of these things.”
The editorial ends: “Too often, since this disaster began to unfold, Mr Hayward has given the impression of struggling to see beyond the personal. “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do,” he said, weeks ago. “ I would like my life back.” After his twin maulings by President Obama and Congress, he may have decided that his reputation is already written off. He does not have the luxury to do so. While he remains in his post, Mr Hayward has a responsibility towards his company and its shareholders. Neither can afford a chief executive who is a global laughing stock.”
“Mr Hayward has one priority — to fix the leak. He is a geologist, not a publicist. This does not mean, however, that he can afford to be cavalier in the image he projects to the world. If BP’s chief executive cannot grasp this, even now, his position may be better filled by somebody who can.”
How will BP’s Board react to that broad-side?