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The Gulf Spill: Has BP Regained Your Trust?

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By John Bell

April 26, 2012

John Bell

John Bell is the retired CEO of coffee/confectioner Jacobs Suchard, now part of Kraft. As a strategy consultant, he has counseled some of the globe's most respected blue-chip consumer goods companies.

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Two years have now passed since the explosion at BP’s deep-water rig in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010. In the aftershock, the world watched BP and its chief executive, Tony Hayward, make blunder after blunder while their crude continued to gush, literally and figuratively. BP’s talk about caring for the environment was for naught, as its actions failed to match its message. And although the company finally fired Hayward, paid restitution, enhanced its drilling standards, and sponsored several feel-good TV commercials, it has failed to regain the trust it supposedly covets. Why? Because the public still holds the view that BP is dealing with the Gulf disaster’s fallout not because it wants to but because it has to.

Taking three months to cap the deadly flow of 4 million barrels of oil is not easy to forget. God only knows the full extent of the damage that was done and how long the ecosystem will take to fully recover. We don’t know how much of BP’s reparative spending was voluntary, negotiated or spurred by legislation. Suffice to say that public suspicion does not favor voluntary action.

Toward the end of 2010, the new CEO, Bob Dudley, promised “to move the company forward and rebuild confidence after the terrible events.” A key component of his image-building strategy was a commitment to provide regular progress updates to the public along the way. The available avenues are advertising, the press, and social media. Early on, BP ran some print advertising reiterating its responsibility to learn from the spill and share findings to ensure that the tragedy never happens again. More recently, the BP-sponsored Gulf Coast tourism TV campaign has implied that everything is back to normal. No doubt, substantial reparative progress has been made. But does the latest ad make you feel any better about the offender?

The Gulf Spill: Has BP Regained Your Trust?

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As for public relations, I expected hundreds of press release updates from BP Global. Yet since December 2010 the company has issued only 118, and few have to do with the spill and its aftermath. BP’s official press release page identifies 10 public relations themes ranging from “major transactions” to “corporate results and filings.” The “health safety environment” theme contains zero releases since 2008. “Gulf of Mexico response” has 16 posts since the beginning of 2011; the six most recent are all about legal rulings or settlements or culpability.

At Facebook and Twitter, we have a different story. A very capable BP social media manager is doing a commendable job of delivering on the company’s “update” promise. The problem is reach. People don’t want to “like” BP America’s Facebook page nor are they keen to “follow” on Twitter. BP America has only 218,000 Facebook likes — not much for a well-known company with 80,000 employees. Twitter followers are a paltry 38,000; that’s a mere quarter of the (relatively inactive) anti-BP protest site @BPGlobalPR. So when BP’s social media manager tweets or posts the numerous YouTube videos about environmental and economic restoration, the public impact is limited.

BP is a $135 billion company with limitless resources for communicating progress in the Gulf. Ironically, it has probably been more successful repairing the Gulf Coast than rebuilding its brand image. I’m quite sure many of its executives believe the task is insurmountable. It isn’t. Where there is a will, there is always a way. This challenge is not about the funds needed to spread the word. It is about the culture behind the word itself. A culture driven by bottom line and stock value keeps getting in the way.

A catastrophe of this magnitude should change a company forever. Indeed, BP has been shaken to the ocean’s floor. Yet virtually every BP press release or CEO commentary about reputation links rebuilding trust to rebuilding shareholder value. The culture that reportedly made trade-offs for the benefit of the bottom line before the spill continues to lurk in the nooks and crannies of the C-Suite. To restore trust, BP’s leaders must take shareholder value out of their reputation equation and think single-mindedly about reputation alone. Until they do that, BP will never rebuild its image. Currently, the stock price is down 35 percent from pre-spill levels. Maybe that’s all the incentive the company needs to try harder.

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