BP faces criticism from PR experts

A protester outside of the British Petroleum (BP) company offices in Chicago, Ill.


Kai Ryssdal: The CEO of BP has the quote of the day today this Friday. Tony Hayward told a British newspaper that the big oil spill is "tiny" in relation to a "very big ocean." It has, as you can imagine, gotten a lot of play. But with reports that the spill is far larger than earlier estimates, it goes to illustrate a more relevant point. The enormous public relations hole that BP keeps digging for itself.

Here's our senior business correspondent Bob Moon.

BOB MOON: The president himself has called it "the BP oil spill," and today, Mr. Obama stepped up his public criticism with a blast at the blame-shifting during a recent congressional hearing.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't.

Phil Butler is a marketing consultant at Pamil-Visions PR. He says BP's initial willingness to do the right thing has given way to legal language.

PHIL BUTLER: BP started with sort of a passive-submissive stance, which is a little bit the way they should have been. Like, "We're really sorry, we're doing everything we can." And then they've shifted to -- it's almost like the company got mad or angry.

That's not playing well with the president or the public.

But Brian Dobson of Dobson Communications thinks he understands what's behind it: The tension between BP's image-makers, and its lawyers. He points to the promise from BP CEO Tony Hayward to pay "all legitimate claims." Hawyard added that he expects a flood of illegitimate claims because -- he told an interviewer -- "This is America. Come on."

BRIAN DOBSON: That may be something that happens and is likely to happen in any situation, but to say that in the midst of a crisis!

PR expert Phil Butler says the lawyers have their job to do, but right now, BP executives should pay attention to their image.

BUTLER: The PR firm is Brunswick Group, which is one of the most powerful PR firms in the world. Somebody there, it would seem to me, would be saying, "Hey, wait a minute. We need to get away from the bean counters and the attorneys, and think about the long term." You can't worry about a trillion dollars if you're going to lose $10 trillion."

Butler says a day in court won't matter if no one's buying BP's gas.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.


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