For their reputations – and their futures – it was too little, too late.
Finally, the combatants came together, the president whose approval ratings have free fallen to below 50% and the oil company whose market value has plummeted by $80 billion and whose dividends are now wiped out.
The result – a $20 billion BP fund to aid the people in the Gulf whose lives and livelihood have been wrecked by the spill – was the first positive bipartisan development in the whole sorry saga.
But neither Obama nor BP will get much credit for it.
President Obama's P.R. Blunders
For President Obama, the BP spill will become his “Mission Accomplished,” the moment in his presidency where people lost faith in his credibility as a leader who could take charge, speak thoughtfully and get action.
On the contrary, Obama’s performance since the spill in the Gulf began has revealed a president who:
- Was slow to move when crisis struck and compounded his failure with a pandering moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf, that will cost the region’s economy even greater monetary loss and psychic misery.
- Delivered an underwhelming Oval Office speech to the nation where, instead of exhorting his countrymen to adopt a bold, new energy initiative and once and for all shed the chokehold of foreign oil, he chose instead to reprise a warmed-over campaign laundry list of oil substitute non-starters.
- Decries Washington’s “finger-pointing blame game” and then seizes every opportunity to blame BP – in the harshest, most unforgiving language, e.g. “If (BP CEO Tony) Hayward worked for me, he wouldn’t be around long.” -- even as he acknowledges that the only entity capable of fixing the problem is the oil company “partner” he demeans.
President Obama has revealed himself throughout this crisis as, if not a socialist, at least as an individual who has never worked for a profit-making company, has never owned a share of stock, and is virulently anti-business.
BP's P.R. Blunders
For BP, the result of this crisis will be equally disastrous. The company will be remembered not only for the most catastrophic oil spill in U.S. history, but also for public relations gaffes that nailed its corporate coffin.
- Failing to heed the first axiom of public relations damage control: Never predict. BP’s early declaration that the spill would be “very, very modest” and that only 1,000 barrels of oil a day would leak (current estimates have now climbed to 60,000 barrels a day!) – will haunt the company long until the last lawsuit is settled decades from now.
- A tone deaf CEO who insisted on violating the second axiom of public relations damage control: Never depart from your script. Hayward’s utterings of wanting “to get my life back” and how the spill’s impact would be moderate because “it’s a big ocean out there” – have already been enshrined in the Crisis Hall of Shame. (No wonder Obama refused to be pictured with him at the White House pow wow.)
- A well-meaning chairman, who, upon attempting to do the right thing, blurted out the overriding BP spill phrase that will live in infamy. After the White House meeting in front of the world's press, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg (the strategic P.R. replacement for Heyward) apologized profusely for the damage his company had wrought on the Gulf and expressed his commitment to the “small people” affected.
Ironically, the pilloried oil company deserved some credit for its public relations – especially for making its executives available for daily media pounding, expressing remorse for the spill, and immediately agreeing to pay all legitimate damages.
But “credit” is the last thing either BP or the president will get.
Both have lost immeasurably -- and probably irretrievably -- from the disaster in the Gulf.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, commentator, author and teacher for 40 years. He teaches public relations at NYU and is the author of the Prentice- Hall textbook "The Practice of Public Relations," now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of "Idea Wise."
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