Thursday, 17 June 2010

Barak, BP and the principles of PR


Now it may come as a surprise to those with any knowledge of my political career, but I won a prize for PR once. There it hangs – on the wall of the office – a facsimile of the front page of PR Week resplendent with my prize-winning prowess.

It is on this basis (and I appreciate that it’s a pretty limited basis) that I am going to talk about BP. Or “British Petroleum”, as the Americans like to call the company in an act of guilt displacement almost unmatched in recent times. It would appear that, because of a major oil spill at an American-owned, American-operated drilling platform commissioned by BP, the company has found itself up to its armpits in the proverbial sticky-stuff.

More importantly, what we have seen is the meeting of corporate PR with political PR – and the political PR of the American left to boot. Let me explain.

Effective crisis public relations is predicated on three things – honesty about what is happening, description of the remedies and response in place and the constant availability of senior management in presenting these issues. The theory – that stuff I got the prize for – says that this approach will work. There will still be a crisis but the firm will be seen as having accepted responsibility, responded appropriately and that this response is led by the most senior people in the organisation. BP have done this well – as an example of applying the crisis PR playbook it is spot on. But the playbook didn’t reckon on politics.

The principles (and I use that word loosely) of political PR can be described as – don’t accept responsibility, attack someone else or shift the blame and avoid any careful, factual consideration of how to respond to the particular crisis. Politics is – as the man said – a dirty game and BP have fallen foul of Barak Obama’s need to protect his rather fragile poll position. And the fact that there’s a ‘foreign’ company to blame is a godsend. POTUS couldn’t have wished for a bigger gift horse to snog.

Barak Obama’s actions – once he’d made it clear it was “somebody else’s fault” – have been driven by the polling responses, applause and focus groups not by any coherent strategy to address the problem. Every step has been to reinforce – through attack campaigns, dissembling and what amounts to misinformation – the culpability of a ‘foreign’ company (that happens to be 40% US-owned). The full might of the Obama machine – press, PR, social media – has been directed to blaming BP rather than to working with the company to address the problem.

And, sad to relate, this negative, unpleasant and (according to the PR textbook) wrong campaign is working. It’s a sad world.


1 comment:

Phil said...

It's a symptom I recognise in many of the larger organisations I have worked for. When something goes wrong there's a greater interest in finding someone to stick it on, making sure you're in the clear, than there is to 'working the problem'.

However I guess I'm naive because though I know Democrat politics has a tendency to this, I hadn't thought of Obama in the same mould. I find this whole 'boot on the throat' posturing unnerving to say the least.