Blog: BP's unfolding PR disaster
Dave Leggett | 28 May 2010
I think we all know - deep down - that the relentless burning of hydrocarbons brings with it some occasionally troubling consequences. Most of the time we don't give it too much thought when we fill the petrol tank with that invisible black liquid gold. You'd probably go a bit mad if you worried constantly about all the things that aren't quite right with the world. It's a long list.
And let's face it, we are still living in an economy that depends on the burning of hydrocarbons. We can wean ourselves off them, step by small step, but the alternatives are still not quite there, whether we are talking about power generation for electricity or powertrains for mass-market vehicles.
The dark side of mining, trading and burning the liquid black stuff – along with associated interdependencies - was neatly summarised by Al Gore: “We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change.” I'm not sure I agree with everything Al Gore says, but that is very well put.
The Persian Gulf part of the sentence alludes to the 'energy security' argument that plays well in the US. Dependence on the Middle East for oil is widely seen as A Bad Thing. The implication is that things that lessen that dependence are A Good Thing. That might mean consuming less oil, which is where hybrids and electric vehicles can make a contribution. But it might also mean developing more oil extraction locally. And for the US, the Gulf of Mexico is pretty local. They're now going into deeper water to get the oil.
The disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has shown what can happen when things go wrong with offshore drilling. Clearly something went very wrong with the systems and checks that are meant to ensure that a catastrophic event like that doesn't happen, or that if it does, effective remedial action can be quickly applied to limit the resultant harm.
Hopefully, the relevant authorities and regulators will get to the bottom of it and put in place any necessary changes to ensure that it cannot happen again.
There will always be some level of environmental risk with oil though, in both its extraction and transportation.
As far as BP is concerned, as well as the immediate challenge of dealing with the crisis itself, there is clearly a very big PR disaster unfolding in North America (and to some extent the world) that it will have to contend with for many years to come. A fat multinational corporation that makes supernormal profits and colludes with dodgy regimes in the Middle East to bring us hydrocarbons to burn is probably walking a thin line at the best of times. But if it's not whiter than white on safety and on presenting its case for corporate social responsibility, there surely will be a longish queue of unsympathetic people only too happy to have a pop.
What's happened in the Gulf of Mexico is a nightmare scenario for an oil company and manna from heaven for those with a natural antipathy to oil companies and what they represent.
And these days, you have to fight your PR battles in the blogosphere and in social networking forums. A fake BP Twitter page has illustrated how easy it can be for your digitally agile opponents to quickly gain visibility and help to shape public opinion. Well honed - or even crude (sorry) - satire is not easy to fight.
Example of tweet from @BPGlobalPR: "We are dedicated to helping the wildlife in the gulf. Any birds that need cleaning must report to 287 Quartemain St, Baton Rouge, LA 70801"
I wonder how long it will be before other companies - dare I say it, maybe some in the auto biz - find themselves targeted by similar campaigns?
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