Brand Repair: BP’s Environmental and PR Crisis… Should BP Continue It’s $50 Million Ad Campaign?, or Throw in the Marketing Towel Until the Oil Flow is Stopped?

Summary:

The Situation
– It’s Ugly by Definition
– A Clear Marketing Choice: Open It Up, Pay BIG Cash or Wait?

21st Century Marketing Mandate: No One Said It Was Easy
– Surrender Messaging Control or Perish
– Let the Public In To See, To Share, To Act

Marketing To Win: Three Steps to Protect the Long Terms Value of the Brand
1. Surrender Control
2. Act
3. Align the Company and the Public’s Desire to Stop the Spill and Clean Up the Mess as Quickly and Safely as Possible (And Prevent Future Mishaps)

Conclusion
– Opening it Up Protects the Brand
– Controlling the Message: The Cost is Too High

In Control Means Marketing Out of Control!

Marketing 2.0 Win is never shy about taking on the big business challenges… the one’s that keep executive teams awake at night. And if ever an executive is up all night these days it has to be Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, recently dubbed the “most hated man in the world!”

It seems that every move, every comment he makes… and everything he doesn’t say just makes this catastrophic situation worse and makes public and policy makers alike more and more angry, upset and distrustful as we are all impacted by this terrible crisis.

What is also clear is that the marketing and communications are out of their control, the brand polluted, perhaps permanently as reflected in their current stock price which many, except perhaps current stockholders, feel is quite justified and hasn’t really been punished enough.

Our job isn’t to get into the how and wherefores of this mess. It exists.

What is clear is their “crisis management” strategy, apparently designed by PR firms and lawyers to minimize losses and protect BP’s image culminating to date in their $50 million what I call “Mea Culpa” ad campaign, hasn’t, can’t and won’t work.

This posting is inspired by an article that came out last week in the Wall Street journal entitled BP Rolling Out New Ads Aimed at Repairing Image that questioned the wisdom of this strategy. The last line in the article in particular caught my attention.

A quote was attributed by the author Suzanne Vranica to Chris Gidez, U.S. Director of Crisis Communications at Hill & Knowlton NY, a Unit of WPP, who is quoted as saying: “Until the leak is stopped, no amount of advertising or PR will help,” in particular caught my attention.

Is This True?, and the Best BP Can and Should Do?

Our position is perhaps not.

But to make it so, BP needs to make a fundamental change.

In thinking about this, we come back again to Jet Blue and former CEO David Neelman and his response to the Valentine’s Day Storm of 2007 that was the catalyst for a very public and embarrassing system wide melt down that left many passengers stranded with no means of getting to their final destination, for in some cases many days.

Crisis Marketing: A Customer-Centric Response

Let’s be clear at the outset. I do not mean to suggest that this business crisis that involved perhaps tens of thousands of inconvenienced travelers is in any way on the same scale as this one, that has involved loss of life, livelihoods and loss of irreplaceable environments, let alone cost to clean up.

What I want to focus on here is Neelman’s response itself.

Watching it even now I am struck by his authenticity. You can see the circles under his eyes, he stutters a bit, his presentation is clearly not scripted or smooth.

And not only does he apologize, he also tees up a set of actions including what became Jet Blue’s Travelers’ Bill of Rights, an industry first. What’s more he didn’t wait for the Government to legislate consumer protection. Jet Blue acted because from their customer-centric of view, it was the right thing to do irrespective of cost, and in fact a cost of doing business.

You also see and hear a CEO that truly is connected to his brand. He understands the connection of his company with his customers, and its long-term value. He gets it and clearly, as CEO dealing with a crisis, is prepared to have his organization pull out all the stops to make the changes required to solve the problem and earn customer trust again as Job #1.

We got it too, and have come back to what is a better Jet Blue.

The Gulf Spill: Command and Control Messaging Will Lead to Long Term and Costly Brand Attack

Now let’s circle back to our current situation. What we see here is a carefully crafted, command and control marketing program, telling us the story as BP itself sees it.

What we also see is a company on the hook for potentially $ billions in liabilities apparently trying to limit the damage.

On the positive side, we also see a company who although they may have promised regulators what it couldn’t deliver in terms of environmental protection, and perhaps it even “misled” regulators as to it capabilities to prevent a disaster like this, is clearly pulling out all the stops it knows to come up with solution. I see a company making it up as they go. I see a company trying, perhaps clumsily. Could it be any other way?

We see a carefully crafted brand disintegrating before our eyes. The public is angry and upset. Leaders appear ineffective and out of touch, and ready to “kick some ass” to demonstrate their power.

The stakes are incredibly high and BP finds itself is perceived as defensive, untrustworthy and unable to get out of its own way especially relative to its image and prestige.

What is now clear is the less transparent they are, the more they hinder journalist and public access, and the more they try to push its version of the message out “there”, the worse it is getting for BP.

Right now the marketing advantage is with the anti-BP forces, who make more noise and have more visibility, more friends, and a louder marketing voice. Fear and anger trump crafted messaging here and will do so until BP surrenders message control.

Here is How Marketing Can Help… Transparency is Essential

BP needs to open the gates, to let us in on the action, and let us see what is happening for ourselves. They have to realize that we need to see the whole thing.

The company must also be real, and show its human side above and beyond just Tony Hayward. It must listen without hindrance or defense, knowing full well that what it may hear won’t be flattering or pretty, at least for a while. Talk about thankless.

If BP can become more open, if it gives the public, for example, direct access to its daily briefings, where heaven forbid, anyone, even you or I can ask questions to its engineers and other experts, it will get an audience. Over time this can in fact turn down the heat on the ever building and rightful frustration and anger. The key if is… if the forum is authentic and real.

This is just the beginning.

BP can take us behind the scenes and give us a view in real time of the what I gather must be extraordinary measures they are taking to get this under control… both the ones that work and don’t, warts and all as they happen. It doesn’t have to cost either. There are plenty of journalism students, perhaps even a Walker Evans or two, who would be happy to help!

By showing (not just telling) us how the people of BP that live on the Gulf are affected just like the rest of us, we are then connected as human beings, and aligned to the same objective, getting the spill stopped, and the mess cleaned up.

The political and “who pays what” elements, important as they are, lose their potency as messages and can then recede to secondary story status.

And for Part B. Then Act in the Interests of People Effected…

One suggestion. Perhaps BP creates a Gulf Crisis SWOT Squad, specifically available to help individuals and families get the help they need immediately. Instant help, NO red tape.

BP could perhaps even build a partnership with say a Wal Mart, one of the unsung heroes of Katrina, and other businesses so that individuals affected can get supplies, rent and other necessities NOW when they need them, as the other details gets sorted out.

Perhaps this could be seeded by what’s left from the ill-fated $50 million ad buy?

BP. Let us see for ourselves that you as a company in fact understand the human cost of your actions and about solving the problem, and ironically enough, about your brand that you invested so heavily in.

Show us that we matter, no matter what the cost. That we are worth it… and that your brand is too. After all it is customers that make the brand, any brand come alive.

This is what it means to be a responsible brand. Not just build it and market it in good times, but to be it… to do its best, to meet public need as best as it can in bad.

Brands Are Living Entities That Require Action to Restore in a Crisis

And if history is any guide, those courageous companies that take this posture find themselves in a stronger position once the dust settles. That’s because they have shown through action that the promise of the brand, the connection of the product its audience is real, and we as customers tend to reward those that do so over the long haul.

That is the lesson Jet Blue. And so far, BP has no clue.

Waiting It Out Is Too LATE, and Cash Is NOT King…

BP needs to show us that yes it’s a company, a huge multi-national one at that, but as such it is run by and operated by human beings.

This massive mistake was not caused by a robot or a machine… And its time BP let go of controlling the situation and wake up to marketing in the 21st century, I hope they do so soon…

And we can assure you Mr. Hayward, once you do, you will be able to get some sleep again!

It might not happen overnight, but access, dialog, transparency and truth trump the noise of fear and anger each and every time, over time. Give us these things so we can all get aligned with the ultimate goals and you will protect and enhance the brand, the people and the company that is BP.

Pay now or later… doesn’t matter, you will pay. But by letting go of control, by understanding and investing in people not ad campaigns, you will win in a marketing sense and in ways that may seem unimaginable today, as the payoff.

Post Script

As we got ready to post this, we find that BP has been sent a letter signed by members of the US Congress with a demand (request?) for BP to set up a $20 billion victim compensation fund, held in escrow and executed by a 3rd party. This has been underscored by President Obama today (June 16, 2010) in a personal meeting with Tony Woodward at the White House.

From a marketing perspective, how much more interesting and powerful would this be if BP had gotten ahead of things and set up such a fund under its control without political prompting?

Now that others have led the charge for such a program, what may not be so good for BP is having independent 3rd party in charge.

If not positioned correctly and I can see no reason yet why it would be, BP could now be put in a place of not only being the villain causing irreparable harm but now they are on the hook to pay the bills, and then get no brand “credit.” Terrible and costly.

This is a razors’ edge they walk! One thing for certain, just waiting for the crisis to end to begin re-building the brand is not a strategy for success. And 20th Century/Command and Control Communications will not work.

Like it or not we are all in it with you, and there is much you can do now to get us all focused on real solutions to this mess, but you have to let us in without restriction.

Otherwise, you will be an object of contempt that could take generations to fix and will cost your company and its investors more than you can imagine. It’s your choice Mr. Woodward and BP.

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