BP’s Ad: The Damage is Done

Watching the new British Petroleum ad, in which CEO Tony Hayward pledges, “We will get this done, we will make this right,” you can’t help but think: It is just too late.

Hitting the Web on Thursday at about the same time that the most heartbreaking images of oil soaked birds hit cable news, its message may have been of reassurance and responsibility, but it is being viewed almost entirely through the lens as some kind of spin control. What’s worse, Madison Avenue and other crisis management experts see it as the type of campaign you’d wage if you were Tylenol in 1982, not an oil giant competing against the around-the-clock view feed of its oil seeping through the well.

1275651390593 Hayward could be tarred and feathered himself but the effect will be the same: BP’s ad campaign now competes not only against that, but Hayward’s own statements, their own disjointed response and opaque release of information and the possibility of criminal charges, not to mention a satirical push that is close to their real initial responses.

Twenty years ago, a very different BP was faced with a much, much smaller spill from a tanker off the coast of Huntington Beach. The company had the advantage of knowing what not to do based on Exxon’s response a year earlier to the ExxonValdez spill in Prince William Sound. I was reporting for the Los Angeles Times back then, and, like the rest of the media pack in Huntington, was initially consumed by the parade of politicians who seized on the spill at beach-side press conferences. For better or worse, the BP executives managed to shift attention from the accident to the cleanup, to the point where, after several weeks, one of its senior executives held a press conference to declare the waters clear again, and finished by taking a swim himself. The response was seen as the “industry standard” for public crisis management.

With oil still seeping, BP doesn’t have the luxury for the same type of image campaign, nor do they have the same media environment. (I remember being admonished for overuse of one of our newsroom’s two cell phones, with charges that were probably about $5 a minute). This is a disaster, and it is what it is.

Several weeks ago, in a hearing in Chevron’s effort to obtain filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s outtakes from his documentary “Crude,” which I write about here, the district court judge said, in a moment of frustration over one attorney’s effort to inject politics into the matter at hand, “Everybody hates oil companies. We all understand that.”

Update: President Obama has weighed in, chiding the company for spending millions on an image campaign when people haven’t been able to get their claims paid.

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