Why Is BP Investing in a Bloated, Ineffective Oil Spill PR Coverup?

Gulf oil spill

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is out of control. Anyone who takes five minutes to glance at the news can see that—BP has no surefire way to plug the leaking pipe, the ocean is awash in oil, and nearly 20% of all commercial and recreational fisheries in the area have been closed as a result of the spill. So why is BP continuing to spend time, money, and manpower on ineffective PR coverups?

BP is doing its damnedest to keep reporters out of the hardest hit areas, as evidenced by this story from a Mother Jones reporter who attempted to visit Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge, only to be given the runaround by cops and BP representatives. Mac McClelland discusses her interaction with BP representative Barbara Martin:

When I tell Barbara I am a reporter, she stalks off and says she's not talking to me, then comes back and hugs me and says she was just playing. I tell her I don't understand why I can't see Elmer's Island unless I'm escorted by BP. She tells me BP's in charge because "it's BP's oil."

A similar incident occurred last week when a vessel of Coast Guard officials and BP contractors threatened to arrest CBS reporters investigating an oily beach in South Pass, Louisiana, citing "BP"s rules." We spoke to Lieutenant Commander Chris O'Neill, the Chief of Media Relations for the U.S. Coast Guard, soon afterwards and were told that "The incident isn't reflective of policy for media access to the spill site or spill mitigation efforts." But while the incident may not be reflective of the Coast Guard's policy, it clearly wasn't isolated. And all these orders to follow BP's rules must come from somewhere.

Reporters may be difficult to keep quiet, but fishermen can be paid off. At least, that's what BP hopes. Local fishermen can no longer fish on account of the oily mess, so they've turned to BP for help. The oil company is offering the locals thousands of dollars in compensation to help clean up the spill, but in exchange, the fishermen have to sign non-disclosure agreements. A source on the ground tells FastCompany.com that BP recently upped the amount it is paying fishermen and sent out email reminders about the NDA (If you've seen it, we urge you to send a copy to oil at fastcompany.com; your anonymity is guaranteed). If local fishermen want to keep their lucrative temp jobs, they have to keep their mouths shut about the spill.

BP has not answered our questions about the NDAs or other questions we've posed about its PR strategy. Its chief Tony Hayward did take a tour of some of the beaches on which his company's oil now rests, and he barked at a videographer, seemingly commanding him to get out of his oil.

BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg fired back at critics who dared suggest his company didn't have a future in the U.S., telling the Financial Times on Tuesday, "This is not the first time something has gone wrong in this industry, but the industry has moved on. Of course our reputation will be tarnished, but let's wait and see how we do with plugging the well and cleaning up the spill."

It's hard to understand what BP is thinking here—the truth about the devastating impact of the oil slick is spilling out almost as fast as the slick itself. That shouldn't be surprising to BP. Nearly every mainstream media outlet, environmental organization, and Gulf Coast resident is fixated on the spill. So instead of attempting to cover up one of the biggest environmental disasters of our time, perhaps BP should allow any fisherman who wants to help to get involved—regardless of whether they plan to talk to the media. After all, BP needs all the help it can get.

BP's attempts at secretiveness may not end anytime soon, but the oil company did pledge to reverse its earlier decision to cut its live feed of the leak during tomorrow's "top kill" operation [Ed: Though at post time, the feed was still live], which will involve drilling mud being injected into the leaking pipe in an attempt to stop the flow of oil.

Let's just hope that the growing storm in the Atlantic stays on course and doesn't disrupt BP's operation tomorrow. The last thing we need is even more failure.

 Read more about the Gulf Oil Spill

Got information on the spill you want to share? Email us at oil@fastcompany.com. It'll go directly to the lead reporter and editor on these stories, and they'll assume all initial communication to be strictly confidential.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by e-mail.

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