Broken Promise: Shame on BP for using “Shaggy Defense” on Gulf oil spill


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Apparently at BP, the leadership mantra is, “The bucks stops over there.”

The Gulf oil spill is now over three weeks old, with no end in sight. An environmental disaster, to be sure. But how the companies involved are handling it is also a leadership and brand disaster.

Is the oil spill BP’s fault?
NO! BP says that Transocean owns the rig, so they are to blame.

Will Transocean step up and be counted?
NO! Transocean blames BP at the lease operator and Halliburton as a cement contractor. Extra points for a “double shaggy.”

How about Halliburton?
NO! They are just a service provider to BP.

All three parties are employing what some call the “Shaggy Defense,” named after the 2000 song “It Wasn’t Me” from a singer named — you guessed it — Shaggy. When in doubt, blame someone else.

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Stand up and own the problem

Every business has a supply chain, including a variety of outsourcers, contractors, etc. And each supplier has its own supply chain. This is great! When disaster strikes, you’re sure to find plenty of scapegoats.

Hey, maybe it was the ingredients in the cement that caused the catastrophic failure?

Sand Supplier: “Gee, Senator, if only I’d known that the sand I sold to Halliburton to make that cement wasn’t up to snuff. OK, send me a bill for the clean-up. This spill was my fault.”

Sure suppliers should be held accountable by their customers. But in this case BP accepts no ownership and publicly passes the buck. I wonder what other BP suppliers are thinking right now. Who needs customers like this?

The root cause of the Tylenol disaster in 1982 was a poor design that allowed someone to lace capsules with poison. What would have happened to Tylenol’s brand if they had blamed the store for security lapses? Or blamed the package designer? Instead, J&J acted decisively and the brand survived.

Brand promise

A “brand promise” is what customers expect from interactions with a company and its people, products and services. This “promise” is not a logo or what the company proclaims, it’s defined in people’s mind by what the company actually does.

I think it’s fair to say that most people would expect a petroleum company to not spill 210,000 gallons of oil into the ocean. Per day.

In fact, BP explicitly states:

“BP is our global brand. It represents what we do now, and what we aspire to do in the future. We help the world meet its growing need for heat, light and mobility. And we strive to do that by producing energy that is affordable, secure and doesn’t damage the environment.”


“We have a set of values that we use in all our business decisions. They guide our behaviours, and the types of products and services we offer. It is these values, and what we stand for as a company, that make BP distinctive.”

In time we’ll hopefully learn which companies are legally liable. But the damage has already been done to the BP brand and its culture. So far as I’m concerned, BP now stands for Broken Promise.

Alert! I think the next phase of BP’s Shaggy Defense will be blaming its customers. A bold move, but this would totally fit BP’s leadership style. You see, if customers didn’t want to buy oil, BP wouldn’t have had this problem. So if you’re buying gas from a BP station, you’re to blame for the Gulf oil disaster. Congratulations, you’ve just been Shaggied.


  1. Hi Bob

    An interesting polemic.

    The Gulf Oil Spill is a disaster on too many fronts. It is a disaster for the Gulf ecosystem, heavily polluted by the leaking oil. It is also a disaster for those who live and work in the Gulf, who have seen their livelihoods disappear. It is a disaster for BP, Transocean and Halliburton, who all bear responsibility for what has and hasn’t happened. It is a disaster for the US Minerals Management Service, who woefully mismanaged their dual role of promoting and regulating oil exploration. It is a disaster for the Obama administration, which has shown that it is incapable of competently managing a disaster on this scale. And it is a disaster for the whole American nation, which is unable to ween itself off its dependency on cheap oil. The only people who will probably benefit from this multi-faceted diaster are the gangs of rapacious lawyers eagerly lining up to sue anyone with even the remotest involvement in the oil spill; a different type of disaster in itself.

    The Gulf Oil Spill is only superficially like the Tylenol recall. Firstly it is on a hugely larger scale. Both in terms of the number of people affected and the cost of repairing the damage. Secondly it is much more complicated due to the nature of drilling in a hostile environment one mile down in the ocean (where the pressure would crush a US military submarine like an old tin can). And finally it is much more difficult to assign responsibility due to the contracts that the three parties have with each other. And with the US government through the highly regulated nature of oil exploration.

    Have the brands of BP, Transocean and Halliburton been damaged? Sure they have. On the short-term. Have the values of the three companies gone down? Sure they have. On the short-term (and I note that Halliburton’s is already recovering). But oil is not like a painkillers. We have become totally dependant upon oil and its refined products. And that provides oil brands, including BP’s, with a certain long-term resilience. In fact you might argue that branding, of the kind that consumers recognise, may be almost irrelevant in this case due to the disaster’s size and magnitude.

    What is clear is that the oild spill disaster is not over. It could be months before it stops leaking. What is also clear is that all sorts of people will try and benefit from others’ huge misfortune; starting with those rapacious lawyers, proceeding through grandstanding congressional politicians and no doubt continuing with some marginally affected people who will look to dip deeply into the 20 Bn fund the Obama administration bullied out of BP. Don’t get me wrong. The polluter should pay. There is no question about that. But the devil is in the details of the question about who is ultimately responsible. Finding this out will take some time.

    What also strikes me about the oil spill disaster is how differently the current US administration treats it, say, in comparison to Union Carbide’s Bhopal disaster in India all those years ago. For those with short memories, Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant leaked poisonous cyanide compounds into the air at its Bhopal plant in India, which killed thousands of people living nearby immediately, tens of thousands over the following years and is still harming new born babies today. Union Carbide has managed to avoid taking much of the responsibility for the disaaster. Apparently, they were helped in doing this by the US administration of the day. It is so much easier to avoid having to take responsibility when disaster strikes in a poor country like India. Even when tens of thousands of people not only loose their livelihoods, but also loose their lives.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
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  2. The problem is lawyers running corporations. They advise their clients not to accept responsibility so they company isn’t liable for the fix.

  3. My impression is that BP’s strategy is first and foremost to protect their shareholders interests. And that has meant denying responsibility and downplaying the severity.

    Hasn’t worked very well. The result: stock price hammered and a PR nightmare that will take years to clean up.

    There are a lot of other parties involved. The US fed government certainly had a key role in the disaster due to lax oversight. But in the end, it’s BP’s business and brand at stake.


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