A “Slippery” Slope: Oil Spill a Hopeless Public Relations Crisis?

The PR prospects for BP seem as black as the millions of gallons of oil spewing forth from their damaged and defunct well.

This hopeless scenario begs a question: Is there a catastrophe so horrific and reputation damaging that no matter how much PR you do, nothing will help?

BP seems to be answering this question with a resounding YES.

Sure, we can Monday morning quarterback this all we want, but we’re not in the cockpit of the PR machine. With finger pointing reaching a malaria-like fever pitch, what we really have here is the perfect storm of bad decisions, bad breaks and the violation of several crisis PR principles.

It’s pretty simple from the sidelines. First, never set up expectations that you cannot deliver. In the early stages of this debacle, day after day, BP laid out optimistic scenarios and failed to deliver on most of them.

I tell construction companies wanting to announce the opening of a building or a road to never use a hard and firm date. Instead of Aug. 12, let’s say, late summer. BP has plowed through every one of its artificial deadlines like a drunk behind the wheel of a semi with a blood alcohol level of 0.25 percent.

Then, it was the power struggle. Who is on first, BP, or the White House? Early on it appeared the government wanted to distance itself from the technological stuff by issuing stiff warnings to BP to get the situation under control, and fast.

What next comes into play obviously appears to be motivated by polling numbers. The White House slowly realized it was being blamed for a hands-off policy and the perception it was too removed from the problem. In response, it went into Alexander Haig mode, God rest his soul. “I’m in charge,” stated the president. Good move. But, a little late, and weeks after the Louisiana governor made political hay by giving a Katrina-like plea that appeared to be unheeded.

Whatever the outcome of the man-made disaster, there will be a lot of PR practitioners writing about this for decades to come. Someone hand me a Tylenol, please.

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