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Spinning the spill: BP’s PR ballet

Photo: AP Photo/Alastair Grant

Before BP’s oil disaster, the dapper Fred Astaire is what I associated with “top hat” – not a mad gush of crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.  Really, how many of us could identify a tar ball, let alone carry on a nuanced conversation about subsea containment systems, oil dispersants and riser insertion tools just a month or so ago?  This event has brought many lessons with it – admittedly not ones we particularly wanted – but one of them could come in handy.  Between the company’s steady stream of missteps and the inconvenient gaffes committed by its chief executive, we’ve been given an opportunity to see corporate crisis communication in action.

Last week “The Fiscal Times” broke the story that BP, as part of its campaign to rehabilitate its image, purchased search terms from several web engines.  Now, if you look for “oil spill,” “gulf oil” or “oil cleanup,” to name just a few keyword combinations, BP’s name and a link to “learn more about how BP is helping” appear prominently at the head of the results page.  The company is reportedly paying more than $10,000 a day to secure these top spots, a pretty insignificant sum for a $115-billion-dollar company with a reputation to protect and a desire to share its carefully crafted message with the world.

The web savvy out there might think BP could find something better to do with its money. After all, everyone knows those links in the highlighted box are essentially paid advertisements, right? Nope. According to marketing researchers, many people have trouble telling news and advertising links apart. If those studies are correct, BP’s strategy is going to drive a lot of new web traffic to its pages.

Those accidental tourists will discover that a multimedia bonanza awaits them. In addition to the typical press releases and financial statements you’d expect to see on a corporate site, you’ll find technical briefings with BP officials and maps and charts detailing the company’s efforts to contain the leak.  You’ll also see short films produced by the company itself.  These videos feature BP officials, representatives of government agencies and area residents.

Watch these clips and you’ll get a good feel for what BP wants you to know.  You’ll learn the company donated $1 million to help a food bank feed people whose incomes were washed away by the spill.  You’ll see that BP is hiring laid off workers to clean beaches and animals contaminated with oil.  You’ll hear that BP even gave the Gulf states money to promote the region’s seafood industry.

“I think BP has responded aggressively, appropriately and on point,” Mike Voisin, CEO of oyster harvesting company Motivatit, tells the camera. “I personally am saddened that BP is getting a black eye for this because they have been a good player in terms of the environment here in South Louisiana.”

Continue to click through the site and you’ll discover BP dispatched two writers, BP reporters they call them, to “meet the people most immediately affected by the oil spill.” Paula Kolmar emerges as the team’s essayist with her observational pieces describing the placement of a containment boom as a “spectacular ballet at sea” and the oil spill as something “oddly” inspiring to see in person.

Her partner Tom Seslar profiles a family in crisis struggling to keep the doors of their seafood restaurant and market open. “There is no reason to hate BP,” the family matriarch tells Seslar. “The oil spill was an accident,” her husband adds.

After learning about BP’s good deeds on its site and visiting its Twitter feed, Facebook page, YouTube channel and Flickr stream, if you didn’t know any better, you might think you passed through Lake Woebegone. All the BP officials are in control, all the wildlife is clean, and all the beaches are above average.

But beyond BP’s closely controlled media environment, serious stories – and images – are emerging that the company’s media booms can’t contain despite their best efforts.

The Louisiana State Health Department reports this week that 71 oil workers have fallen ill as a result, health officials believe, of their work cleaning up the spill.

Federal officials and business owners say BP isn’t making good on its promise to compensate those with “legitimate claims.” Payments have been slow and skimpy – not enough to make ends meet, they say.

A team of scientists appointed by the federal government now estimates more than 1 million gallons of oil have been gushing into the Gulf each day since the Deepwater Horizon rig blowout on April 20.  That means the spill could already be five to six times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

The reality of this spill wrenches the heart and it’s hard not to feel angry – repulsed even – after watching and reading some of BP’s coverage.  BP “reporter” Kolmar’s description of Mothers Day at an Alabama response center rankles:

“BP provided a rose boutonnière for each mom and a wonderful Alabama police office bought hundreds of roses and handed a single rose to every mom and lots of daughters.  Though the work never stopped, there were a lot of smiling faces and a few tears, reminding everyone that this spill response is only a very small part of what’s important.”

It’s important to acknowledge that much of BP’s online effort to shape public opinion includes well-intentioned scientists, BP employees and volunteers – all working hard and making great sacrifices to bring this terrible event to an end – but we must also recognize that way above their pay grade are people whose job is to protect the company and its investors by, as the old song goes, accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative.

That’s why BP’s site will tell you about the $25 million the company gave the Florida State Tourism Board for an ad campaign to woo worried tourists to its beaches. And that’s why it won’t tell you how the state can no longer run one of its ads because tar balls began washing onto Pensacola’s shores last week.

That’s also why BP’s site will show you how it’s supporting the efforts of animal rehabilitation groups to clean oil-drenched birds and return them to the wild, and why you won’t hear that several scientific studies indicate that most of those birds will die anyway.

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