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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  • Erika Hayes James

    Recently I wrote a blog about BP being able to maintain a relatively positive public image after previous disasters, and (to date of the blog, May 10) it appeared that while it make take longer, BP's reputation may even recover from this horrific tragedy. (http://erikahayesjames.com/201... ) I noted that the return to reputational preeminence in the oil industry will be a bit harder to achieve this time around given that the crisis is directly linked to what BP has prided itself on – environmental protection and responsibility. But even though the public can be fickle and an effective use of marketing and social media has proven to be a powerful influence in the past, their actions as described in this article have far exceeded merely a PR issue.

    BP is not handling this crisis well, beginning with its outward lack of compassion and remorse: continuing to make excuses for the delay in clean-up, not taking complete responsibility, lacking a sense of urgency, and now exploiting the very people who are most impacted by the tragedy, those who who depend on the gulf’s natural resources and have lost their ability to make a living. Those fisherman are being asked to assist in what might now be considered a cover-up.

    Not to mention that when I write about how to effectively lead through crisis one of the most important steps for the firm to take is to be transparent. It didn't happen in the banking industry or with the Toyota recall. And it appears that the lack of transparency here leads us to believe that BP has something to hide in its efforts (or lack thereof) to fix this environmental and human tragedy.

  • Christopher Fisher

    Thanks for the update on BP's pr efforts. FYI: MoJo reporter Mac McClelland is a female.

  • Iggy Dalrymple

    Deep sea drilling is a relatively new and uncharted technology. What little expertise exists is held by the BigOil companies and the exploration support industry. I seriously doubt that Obama's Chicago mob tactics will help plug the blowout. So Obama, just keep cashing BP's pac checks and keep pointing your bony finger, but let the industry solve the problem.

  • Tyler Gray

    Valid point that Obama has been one of the biggest recipients of BP checks, but let's not be obtuse. Mob tactics? Why would we let "the industry" solve the problem it created as more and more evidence is uncovered that the industry is just about as corrupt as everyone presumed. I think you're slapping the "mob" label on the wrong bunch.

  • Conquistador

    @Tyler Gray- so when the administration (Secretary Salazar) uses phrases like "push BP out of the way", and "keep their boot on the throat of BP" -- I'm sure he meant it in the nicest way possible.

    Without a doubt the industry is corrupt (like the auto industry and the finance industry - both bailed out by the administration) - but that doesn't imply that the government is any more capable to solve the problem.

  • Tyler Gray

    But they're at least supposed to answer to the people. To whom does BP answer? The market? We've seen where that's taken us. It's a classic liberal vs. conservative argument -- that that I'm labeling you, personally, as either.

  • Pat Howard

    The media needs to take an English lesson. The word "spill" is not defined in the way that you are using it in your articles. An oil well "breach" would be proper terminology.

  • Tyler Gray

    Considering changing tag on all of this to Gulf Oil Spew. Or just throwing out the dictionary altogether and calling it "Crudesplosion 2010."

  • Joe Ranft

    President Obama needs to create a "moon landing"
    project to take over the BP Oil Spill, or else. http://post.ly/hRSI

    (First of all, I'm a huge supporter of President Obama and have been since he gave his Democratic Convention speech in 2004.)

    But I think President Obama is making a huge mistake by not responding with more authority to the BP Gulf oil spill. He needs to create a moon landing type project out of this problem now. Here's how:

    1. Form a government/private sector task force with a prominent leader, either a retired corporate giant like Jack Walsh, or a military leader like Colin Powell, or a senator like Sam Nunn. The leader must be somebody above reproach and bi-partisan who is known for leading and authority.

    2. Put the BP corporate operations under this leader and task force. BP can have a seat at the table but they can no longer run the show.

    3. Establish an open budget for the project. No solution can be too expensive.

    4. Freeze BP's assets in the US until the leak is fixed and the cleanup is complete, with the understanding that they are out of business in the US if they don't pay every penny of the cost.

    5. Assign every scientist in government and private sector who knows anything about this type of spill to the job of stopping the leak and then cleaning up the mess. This includes everybody in the military, the Department of Energy, other oil companies, universities, national and international experts.

    6. Keep trying solutions to stop the leak until something works.

    7. Hold daily press conferences on what is being done, what's worked, what hasn't worked, what's going to be done tomorrow.

    8. Make it clear that there is no other priority in government until the leak is stop and the clean-up has begin.

    If President Obama does not move quickly, like this week, he is putting his presidency at risk. Here's why:

    1. This really is a disaster worse than Katrina. I didn't believe it at first, but if you look at the scope in terms of size and time, this will linger as long if not longer than the problems of Katrina.

    2. The optics are terrible. President Obama seems as if he does not care. It's been over a month, and he has been too quiet on the spill.

    3. His current decision to leave it to BP plays into his critics who say he's a weak and indecisive leader, and a friend of oil.

    4. Even after the spill is stopped, the aftermath will go on for years, well into his next election, and it will be easy to paint him as the person who allowed the Gulf of Mexico to be destroyed by big business.

    5. He's at the risk of losing some of his most progressive supporters, especially environmentalist and alternative energy advocates.

    6. It's just a very photogentic crisis, perfect for commercials. Obama's image will be tied to oil covered birds, fish, coral, shores.

    7. It's the right thing to do, and if he doesn't do it, he'll deserve to lose his presidency.

  • Conquistador

    Oh boy. Umm Joe.......

    RE #1, #2 - are you suggesting that there is some expert buried deep with government, academia, (or Shell, Exxon, Anadarko) - that has the solution to this problem and is only waiting for the right invitation to bring it foward? More importantly - you think there is some government department with more ability than the companies themselves?

    Re #4 - Seize BP's assets? You just said that this is unprecendented in scale, and you want to seize the assets of the company most likely to fix the problem. Now here's a fun thought exercise - how do you suppose it will be received world-wide when the US Government seizes the assets of a multi-national corporation.

    Your (and the President's) position seems to be that government can solve any problem. I disagree.

  • Chris Reich

    As stated, this spill is an environmental disaster which clearly reveals the not-so-hidden cost of continued dependence on fossil fuels. Toss in the mess created by mountain top mining in West Virginia and the recent deaths in U.S. coal mines and you start to see the metastasis of fossil fuel production through to burning the stuff.

    Then, just for fun, let's consider the oil war in Iraq which has cost us over $1 trillion by nearly all estimates. The really neat part of that war is that our oil purchases fund the enemy so don't expect victory in Iraq any time soon.

    So where does that put us? Clean coal is destroying West Virginia. Beyond Petroleum has destroyed the Gulf of Mexico and wet lands along the gulf. Maybe the Everglades will be destroyed as well? Perhaps a hurricane will disperse BP's little mess from Texas to New England. By golly, if it can make it into the Atlantic current, the gunk might make its way to OLD England!

    So use your own figures and calculate the cost of clinging to fossil fuel.

    Then tell me that solar and wind power just isn't cost effective. Tell me that nuclear power is too dangerous and creates too much waste that we can't get rid of.

    We all share guilt in this catastrophe. We want a fossil based economy to go with our fossil based government.

    Chris Reich

  • Sheena Medina

    Chris, you make some very valid arguments regarding our dependency on fossil fuel. Unfortunately, deeply rooted systems such as this don't unravel overnight or even over the course of several years until a catastrophic disaster of this magnitude takes place, and even then, it will only trigger a chain of events that begins the conversation. The real question is, are people ready to give up the comforts, convenience, and perks of a lifestyle built upon these dependencies in exchange for "doing the right thing" and altering their behaviors to become more sustainable? You're completely right, we should point the finger right back at ourselves and ask, "What can I DO to prevent this from happening again?" Just some food for thought.

  • Megan DaGata

    BP is going to take a hit, but they will be back because we depend on them and other companies to fuel our cars, homes, and toys. They are often the lowest bidder and even if the government had taken over BP or a similar large oil company would have recieved the contract to clean it up. Someone, somewhere would have gotten paid. For the citizens, environmentalists, and people it is about the effect of the oil upon the environment now and for eternity, for BP it is about the limited cost now for long term financial gains later. Let's be serious we all know the cost of this is factored into any contract and although they say they never thought this would happen they have insurance policies to cover it. BP is not losing money here that it won't gain back. They are spending what will be reimbursed through law suits and insurance funds later. It's called covering your ass, CYA is the industry term, trust me I have heard it often. I used to work for a subcontractor of BP. I worked there about two years, but I saw the way companies like the one I worked for and BP and Conoco and Shell worked. It made me sick to look at the indemnities and realize that casualties and oil spills are factored into every contract. Don't anyone get sidetracked thinking that BP didn't realize this would happen.

    This is not BP's first disaster in the last few years. This is not BP's ongoing disaster. Their plant in Texas City that is an ongoing disaster. It has been blown up and rebuilt so many times that it is under constant construction. People die there regularly. I am not just casting stones at BP...every oil company does it. All of them and it is our fault. If you are the rare person...and I really don't think there are any left in the "modern" world that HASN'T utilized fossil fuels in someway...you are not at fault. But the rest of us...yep...this is our fault. Change the way you want the world to work and things like these won't happen.

  • Conquistador

    Without question this is an environmental disaster. But so is the tired theme that BP is somehow "holding back" in their efforts to fix the problem. They have and will take a monumental PR hit that won't be helped nor hindered by reporter's access to one less coastal area. And nothing is so laughable as Secretary Salazar's ongoing tough talk about "forcing" them to do the right thing. If the government had the knowledge, skills, or ability to fix this where BP could not - they would already have done so - so perhaps they could stop trying to score political points from it all.