Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

BP and the Gulf Oil "Spill"

I've held off writing about the BP Gulf Oil Spill simply because there is so much being said about it, and my highest concern is not out of professional interest related to the BP brand, but rather the ecological disaster that will be with us for at least decades.

I am prepared to give BP some very valuable and expensive PR and image advice as a public service. Forget about your damn image. Fix the real problems, solve the crisis, and to hell with you image management. More on this later.

As vain as it sounds, I am breaking my silence because two regular readers indicated they were eager to see my reaction to the BP/Gulf oil spill. First let me say, I am disgusted that BP and parts of the media continue to use words like "incident" and spill in describing this. An incident is a temporary, limited, or periodic occurrence, out of the ordinary that generally does not have long-term repercussions. A spill is what happens when you lift your glass of milk too fast and some sloshes out. Neither of those terms applies to the obscene events that continue, largely unabated, along the southern and now eastern shores of the United States. If they were to cap the well this moment the obscenity will continue in the form of devastation to our environment, loss of livelihood, damage to the food source, and economic impact that is truly immeasurable and likely to be felt for decades, if not generations to come.

Although I'd like to see the government take a more visible role in all of this, I have no way of knowing if they are controlling the situation, or what pressures they are putting on BP behind the scenes. I suspect they are making life at BP a living hell. At least I hope they are.
Do we need to continue offshore drilling? Unfortunately, yes. Can we afford as a nation and a responsible society to do it under the conditions and regulations that exist today? Absolutely not. Some areas are just too precious and represent too great a risk to the public well-being. In other words, stay out of Alaska. And probably Florida's waters, etc., etc.

Prior to this disaster I would not have thought it took a rocket scientist to figure out that when you punch a hole in the crust of Earth, literally miles under water, from miles away, you have to figure something terribly wrong could happen, and design a number of back-up plans for "what if . . .” Clearly, that wasn't done. Moreover, it appears BP took as many shortcuts as possible and ran a variety of unsavory risks in the manner by which they set up and operated this site. I've read that the techniques they used in this well are not uncommon among other members of the industry. These companies know its risky, and not necessarily the best methods, but they are committed to keeping costs down and shareholder value up. If ever there was a case for Congress to step in and completely revamp an industry, this is it.

Now to matter of the BP brand. The jackasses working in the PR effort to protect BP's image should be ashamed of themselves. Proof that some people will do anything for money. Lots of it. Don't be swayed by their feeble defense that as professionals, they have an obligation to offer BP their services. They were not sworn to some PR version of physician's Hippocratic Oath. For the record, they might want to refer to a particular portion of that oath that reads: "First, do no harm."

This is a brand that does not deserve to be saved. See, a brand isn't about image. It's about behaviors. BP's behaviors have been deplorable. Instead of running costly full-page newspaper ads to tell America BP takes full responsibility and is going to deal with this to find a solution - FIND THE DAMN SOLUTION! Stop the media circus they are conducting, try being truly open with the American people, fire Cheney's PR person who you brought in to wave her magic wand over it all, (Can you believe they actually hired this twit?), begin offering some protection from the toxins to the thousands of workers you brought in to start cleaning up (despite BP's efforts to portray it as simply picking up litter, this is very dangerous work).

BP is about to prove once again, what I have been saying for my entire career: A brand is the property of the intended audience, not the company trying to advance it. A brand exists only in the minds of the stakeholders, not in the hands of the corporate wonks or shareholders. When BP chose to engage in risky behaviors for the benefit of its stakeholders, it made everyone on this planet a stakeholder. I believe, in response to one of the greatest corporate foul-ups in history, BP is about to see a "stakeholder" revolt unlike anything previously known to man.

I have no sympathy for those local BP dealers who claim their sales off by as much as 40% and the consumer outrage is misdirected at them. If for years you have gladly profited off the good will and clout of the BP brand, then you have to be prepared to accept the negative fallout you rightfully share in the disaster. You collectively chose as dealers not to hold your supplier to higher standards and failed to ask the right questions about procedures that might have prevented this.

The BP brand is dead. They corporate wonks that run the place will quickly set out to replace the name or sell off the assets as soon as the federal government lets them out of the headlock that is meant to keep them focused on cleanup. Don't be surprised to see the Amoco name resurrected. Is this a good move? I don't think so, but naming isn't BP's problem so until real changs are made in behaviors there, what they call the brand will make little difference. 

Despite how angry the public gets and how costly this becomes to BP it is predicted they have more than enough insurance and assets to weather this. Sad, isn't it? BP might be a far smaller company when this is all over, but even that is unlikely. No, BP has protected itself well financially and you shouldn't expect they will shrink out of existance. That is not to say they might not, slink out of existance. Expect to see them drop a few tens of millions on image enhancement and a major rebranding effort. I do expect the BP name to go away in this country. People who cite how Exxon was able to continue after the Exxon Valdez disaster are comparing apples to oranges in the percieved relative magnitude of the situations, the long-term damage, the mood of the public for corporate irresponsibility today versus then, and the ability of social media to generate ire that wasn't possible during the Exxon era. I expect those BP PR wheels are already turning and some of my former colleagues are sopping up enough buckets of money to affort their own homes in the Hamptons alongside those of their clients.

If you get a chance, check out @BPGlobalPR on twitter. This person, identifying them self as Leroy Stick knows more about branding than most of us who claim to practice it for a living - probably because he/she has a clear moral compass, good judgment, sound reasoning and compassion for people and our Planet ahead of profits. Hey, come to think of it, BP, isn't that what a brand should be based on?