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BP PLC chief executive officer Tony Hayward (YURI GRIPAS)
BP PLC chief executive officer Tony Hayward (YURI GRIPAS)

Eric Reguly

BP's PR woes start at the top Add to ...

On the British side of the pond, BP is winning the public relations war on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Britain's reliably jingoistic and enjoyably savage newspapers talk about the American "lynch mob" bent on BP's murder. BP's PR battalions have whipped the chattering classes into a tizzy about the potential loss of the company's fat dividend. Politicians, MPs and lords have been rounded up to launch a counterattack. Norman Tebbit, a Tory lord, called President Barack Obama's treatment of Britain's most beloved industrial giant "a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance against a multinational."

The quotation played well in the British press, even if the alliteration was pushed too far.

On the U.S. side of the pond, the PR war is going against BP. It is "British Petroleum," not BP, even though the company has been known as BP for more than a decade. Americans consider it a foreign company even though it has just as many American shareholders as British ones, and its biggest operations are in the United States. Americans think BP boss Tony Hayward is an English toff because he has an English accent. They don't realize he's a down-to-earth geologist, educated at schools that Cambridge and Oxford grads would sneer at.

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Americans are convinced the company is at best stupid, careless and uncaring, at worst criminally negligent. Their view is reinforced by lawmakers. Representative Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from New York, said: "Whenever you hear someone with a British accent talking about this on behalf of British Petroleum, they are not telling you the truth. That's the bottom line."

The BP oil spill is a story about an environmental, financial, economic and human disaster. For companies that care about their image, it is also a lesson in disastrous public relations. BP doesn't have to win the PR war in Britain. It has to win it in the country where the subsea oil leak has been out of control for two months, wrecking Gulf coastlines and destroying livelihoods. It has to win it in Washington, where the President, downwardly mobile in the polls because of "wimp" allegations, wants to be seen as a tough guy. How else to explain his desire to identify the blowout culprit so he has an "ass to kick" - Mr. Obama's words - or his statement that he would fire Mr. Hayward if he could? Or Tuesday night's Oval Office address, in which he accused BP of "recklessness"?

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BP has made many mistakes on the PR front. Where to start? While the pictures and videos of the gushing well on the BP website tell the world that the company is not trying to underplay the extent of the disaster (even though BP's own estimates for the spill have been far less than other estimates), they overshadow the images of the hard work BP is doing to fix the well and contain the spill. Rule No. 1 in PR is to underplay the bad and overplay the good.

The company's main PR agency in London, Brunswick Group, is considered one of the most effective industry names in Europe. Even though it has New York and Washington offices, it is by no means a communications and crisis management powerhouse in the United States. A big-name U.S. firm would have given BP better access to the White House and to Congress, all the better to fend off the wolf pack.

By far the biggest mistake was Mr. Hayward's decision to employ himself as BP's most prominent spokesman on the Gulf spill. To his credit, he installed himself in the Gulf area shortly after Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded on April 20. He has vowed to stay there until the well is corked.

But Mr. Hayward is an ineffective spokesman. He is awkward on TV. His Britishness reinforces the Americans' belief that BP is the barbarian at the gate even though it provides more Gulf-area jobs that any of its U.S. competitors. His mere presence on TV seems to encourage xenophobia among Americans. An American interviewed on the BBC's Today show asked, in a sneering tone, whether "This Tony Hayward person, the head of BP, is he a lord or a duke or a knight?"

Mr. Hayward has been careless in his remarks, over-promising and under-delivering. In a video posted on the BP website on May 13, he said: "We have a lot more confidence than when I last talked to you that the so-called junk shot, or top kill, will be effective." The junk shot effort to plug the well failed. The low point came a couple of weeks later, when, in an interview, Mr. Hayward said: "I want my life back." He hasn't recovered from that remark, which made him seem insensitive to the catastrophe.

If there is one thing BP should have done from the onset, it should have been to recruit a high-profile, plain-talking, media-friendly, all-American tough guy to act as the company's official spokesman. Look how the press and the cameras love Thad Allen, the admiral who won praise for his Hurricane Katrina search-and-rescue efforts and is winning praise again as the commander for the U.S. government's response to the oil spill.

There is no doubt the White House and lawmakers are going to punish BP, possibly pushing it to the very brink of insolvency. There is also no doubt that BP took a bad situation and made it worse for itself.

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Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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