BP = Bad Publicity

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BP used to be British Petroleum. Then it reinvented itself as Beyond Petroleum, extending the enterprise beyond black gold and becoming a major investor in new energy technologies.

All that counts for little now that the full extent of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is becoming clear.

BP has agreed to create a $20 billion fund to compensate those affected by what is being called – in a ridiculously understated fashion – an ‘oil spill’. BP will pay $3bn into the fund in Q3 2010, with a further $2bn in Q4. BP will continue to drip-feed the fund with an additional $1.25bn per quarter until the $20 billion is paid in full.

I don’t want to comment on matters of engineering fact but I do want to make some remarks about BP’s parallel public relations catastrophe.

I can imagine in the first few frightening hours, BP’s lawyers and public relations teams presented to BP’s board their views on how the company should respond. It’s clear that the lawyers won. “Shift the blame onto someone else.” And that is indeed what BP did in the immediate aftermath of the story breaking. BP blamed their contractors.

Enter Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, with a very clear mandate to protect shareholder value. Hayward suggested that the volume of oil gushing from the vent was “relatively tiny” in comparison with the “very big ocean.” Later, he observed that the environmental impact of the spill would probably be “very, very modest.”

Worse was to come. During an interview, Hayward expressed his frustration with the way that the event was dominating his life. “You know,” he said, “I’d like my life back”. I watched this interview in utter amazement and horror. How inept, thoughtless and cruel! Eleven people on the rig are missing, presumed dead, and he wants his life back.

Enter Carl-Henric Svanberg, Chairman of BP. What is his contribution? Speaking to reporters after a meeting with President Obama, Svanberg rebuts the argument that oil companies are greedy businesses that care only for shareholders. This is “not the case in BP,” he says. “We care about the small people.” Oh dear.

Is it any wonder that the Boycott BP page on Facebook has 640,000 fans? But, this is the least of BP’s problems.

This appalling human and ecological disaster has been compounded by BP’s early obfuscation and subsequently incompetent, insensitive public relations. Where was BP’s crisis management plan when it was needed?

Come on BP. It’s time to ‘fess up, fix the problem and deal with the consequences, however ugly they may be.

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