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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.
There’s been plenty of coverage and commentery over the BP oil spill crisis and subsequent public relations fiasco. One of the things I’ve found most interesting – though not surprising – is the discovery that the BP crisis management plan was riddled with errors and outdated information.
Many of the reports on this flawed plan, like this blog post, focused on the factual errors and obvious lack of due diligence in keeping the plan accurate and relevant. That is, sadly, true of many crisis plans I’ve seen over the years. They are created – sometimes at great expense – but quickly left to gather the proverbial dust and remain detached from daily planning or operations. What surprised me about the BP plan is that it failed both on the business continuity side and the more arcane reputation front. Many companies have decent plans in place to guide operational decisions and contingency steps to sustain operations and manage emergencies. But far fewer – in my experience – have thought through the more nuanced decision-making process related to reputation and media issues. (The celebrated Tylenol case, of course, demonstrated the perfect mix of core values and operational directives.) Even if BP had a better reaction to the spill itself, I suspect it still would have badly bungled the media and marketing response. In fact, in some measure CEO Tony Hayward did things by the book – be front-and-center, be candid and informal, take responsibility…and so on. Unfortunately, he was so badly off script he mostly alienated and confused viewers. And BP made so many off-key decisions in their communication response (notably stubbornly under-estimating the flow of oil) they eroded their latent credibility early in the process.
There are many lessons here for companies eager to avoid a PR disaster in the wake of a business disaster – a double-dip, if you will. One is to develop a robust, dynamic crisis plan that is fully integrated into the operations of the organization. Two is to ensure the plan addresses communication issues like values, decision-making criteria, messaging and positioning.
Technorati’s annual “State of the Blogosphere” is full of interesting findings, but the headline is that the influence of the blogosphere on everything from politics to marketing continues to grow. [Note: the survey is limited to bloggers and data from the U.S.] Here are select findings:
- The blogosphere (in the U.S.) is doubling in size every 230 days
- Hobbyists (who blog for fun) make up 72% of bloggers
- Though Pros (who blog full-time for a company/organization) make up only 4% of bloggers, they are becoming more prolific and influential
- Twitter has had a big impact on the blogosphere, fueling the dramatic rise of micro-blogging…up to 74% of bloggers now use Twitter
- The blogosphere continues to take over turf historically owned by traditional media sources and journalists
- Self-expression and sharing expertise continue to be the primary motivations for bloggers, and 70% of all respondents say that personal satisfaction is how they measure the success of their blog
- For pros, the key measure of success is traffic – or unique visitors
- Blogs cover a wide and diverse range of topics – including many niche subjects
- Most bloggers describe themselves as “sincere”
- Reasons for blogging range from sharing opinions and expertise (popular with hobbyists) to attracting new clients or business opportunities (more important for the pros)
- 30% of respondents say it’s important they conceal their real identity – most for fear or harassment
- Most bloggers are positive about the impact of their blogging on their personal and/or business lives
No real surprises for me in these findings, though the relatively small number of core professional bloggers seems disproportionate to their profile and influence. Then again, this tendency mirrors the trend of the small minority of people who contribute or comment on blogs. The one finding that seemed dissonant is the plurality of bloggers who feel compelled to conceal their identity. I’m not sure how this fits with the ethos of transparency, but they clearly feel compelled to separate their blogger persona from their personal identity.
According to several on-line reports, including this one, at least one of the major insurance organizations (in this case UnitedHealth Group) is urging its employees to campaign against any public health insurance option. The program allegedly includes talking points,access to “advocacy specialists”, instructions on attending local tea party meetings and a script for personal letters to Congress. This tactic – called AstroTurf campaigns – is not new, of course, but the jarring issue here is that UnitedHealth has kept a public stance which is much more conciliatory towards reform proposals.
This issue raises two questions for communication professionals. The first is whether this type of artificial grass-roots campaign actually works – either with members of Congress (who are doubtless used to getting thousands of form letters) or with the general public. The jury may be out on this question, though I would suggest if the central arguments (or criticisms) inherent in the campaign are weak, then no amount of noise will give them traction over the long-term. Then again, maybe I’m an eternal optimist with a belief that most people are basically moderate and logical. Beyond that, if the authenticity of the employee comments or letters is eroded, I would think they carry less weight with most politicians or pundits.
But the bigger question is whether its appropriate for companies to ask – or tell – their employees to participate in de-facto lobbying on behalf of the organization. I think its legitimate, and even smart, to share the company’s position on key public policy issues with employees, and probably even to allow them access to relevant information or materials. Where I believe they cross the line, however, is to ask them to actively get involved in the process…either by attending meetings, signing petitions or writing forms letters. The problem: what happens if an employee disagrees with the policy? Presumably some employees of UnitedHealth or other insurance companies are sympathetic to the idea of health insurance reform, and may even disagree with the corporate line about a public option. Can they safely refuse the directives of their leaders and managers? I think the UnitedHealth directive crosses the line between education and coercion, much like when employees are gently encouraged to vote for certain officials that support corporate policies or legislation. In my book, advocacy must be organic and authentic to be credible. I’d be interested in other thoughts.