The oil spill in the Gulf Coast is now over, but the PR debacle continues unabated for BP, the much maligned global oil company. In recent days, there’s been considerable media invective about the amount spent by BP on so-called “PR” – meaning advertising and marketing activities. While initial estimates from BP capped out at $50 million, the real number (obtained only after a request from the House Energy Committee) appears closer to $100 million, or an average of $5 million a week since April. Not surprisingly, BP claims the advertising – featuring a blizzard of full-page ads in major newspapers and heavy rotation of TV commercials – are designed to keep Gulf Coast residents informed on issues related to the oil spill and to “ensure transparency”. So why the outrage?

There are several reasons why BP is taking a hit on this issue:

  • BP is a huge global company, and the numbers surrounding this issue are commensurate in their size. For example, it’s expected the Gulf Coast spill will cost BP about $100 billion, and the company has agreed to put $20 billion in escrow for reparations and support aimed at the Gulf Coast region. (Keep in mind BP made about $16.5 billion in profit in 2009.) In that context, $100 million on marketing doesn’t like much – at first glance. But the number doesn’t look so insignificant when compared to the relatively paltry sum paid out so far in grants (according to CNN about $400 million), and seems even more inappropriate alongside the obvious economic toll – estimated at $25-30 billion dollars – for thousands of Coast residents and businesses.
  • While there is certainly merit on using paid media to keep consumers informed about the spill – particularly how impacted residents can get financial assistance or information – the reality is that the BP ads were 90% justification and 10% relevant contact information. In fact, recent TV commercials mention the contact info for financial grants almost as an afterthought, mentioning the special website and 800 number. And the fact most of the media spending has been in high-profile national media platforms – rather than local channels that are more likely to reach Gulf residents directly – casts further doubt on their claims.
  • In crisis management context matters as much as content. BP seems to believe that showcasing local staff in every single commercial is enough to guarantee credibility and goodwill. But the ad script seems jarring alongside BP miscues throughout the crisis and is such an obvious attempt to position the company as a good neighbor it fails on all fronts. In addition, the promises of support are badly lagging the reality of assistance on the ground.

The ultimate lesson here for PR professionals is that even doing everything right on paper – in many ways BP is managing this crisis according to best practices – can ring hollow if events don’t match the rhetoric and credibility has been eroded. It will interesting to see if and how this promotion campaign helps to rehabilitate the BP brand. Early reports suggest it might be working, but it’s tough to tell if what’s driving a slight increase in public approval is containment of the spill or the media campaign.

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