Name Change for BP?

By Thomas Murrell MBA, CSP International Business Speaker

Imagine you are the CEO of BP.

At the outset of the crisis you say "it's just a drop in the ocean" and will cause “minimal damage”.

Later you say to reporters "I want my life back", forgetting about the 11 people who were killed.

BP's reputation in the oil and gas world and the wider community is now damaged forever and the once proud British company becomes the butt of jokes:

"British Petroleum said that if this spill gets worse, they may soon have to start drilling for water." -- Jay Leno.

“When I went to lunch and ordered the sea bass, they asked if I wanted it regular or unleaded," David Letterman quipped recently on his CBS show.

How do we know when a crisis is a crisis? When the media tell us it is a crisis.

On Twitter the tweets for “What does BP stand for?” come back – “Bad PR”, “Bloody Pathetic” and “Bad People”.

Reputations take years to build through carefully crafted marketing campaigns but they can be lost in seconds during a crisis like the one BP has experienced.

ExxonMobil has revealed at a hearing in Washington its emergency response plan includes 40 pages on dealing with the media and only nine on dealing with an oil spill.

What message does this send about their priorities?

There's even speculation BP might be bought by a rival such as ExxonMobil or Shell.

As a strategy, should BP change it's name following the US Gulf of Mexico oil spill?

BP's name now is inextricably linked with the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.

No amount of PR spin can change that reality.

A name change for companies facing negative public opinion is nothing new.

In the US, ValuJet, never recovered from a 1996 air crash. It is now AirTran.

Philip Morris tobacco became Altria in 2003.

In 1991, Kentucky Fried chicken announced that it was officially changing its name to "KFC".

The public relations reason given for the name change was that health-conscious consumers associated the word "fried" with "unhealthy" and "high cholesterol," but it was actually the trade marking of the name Kentucky that forced the name change plus a general trend towards a shortening of names.

Myths surround name changes and there is a misconception that the name change from Andersen Consulting to Accenture was the consulting firm's attempt to "hide" from the Enron scandal. This is not accurate given the timing of events.

Besides a name change, what else should BP do now from a PR perspective?

Here's some suggestions from various media articles:

**1. Set up a compensation fund.**

This needs to be a quick process to compensate those whose lives and livelihoods the oil spill has damaged and this is already being talked about in Washington and implemented.

**2. Go ultra-green.**

Some argue BP should become the oil industry's pro-environment leader with a number of substantive, concrete actions.

**3. Offer free product**

Free offers always work in trying to placate unhappy customers. Free BP product could go to churches, schools and charities in affected areas, and steep discounts could go to area residents for a specific time period.

**4. Assemble a panel.**

An independent panel of experts should take the long view of the crisis although this is happening as the heads of some of the world's biggest oil companies are being currently grilled in Washington.

**5. Listen to residents.**

The best way to build credibility is by listening instead of talking. BP should host regular town meetings with community members.

**6. Personalize BP.**

We saw this tactic implemented by Western Power after a power crisis on a hot, sticky February 2003 day in Western Australia.

This was a classic case of what can go wrong when a public utility fails to communicate with the community. Known as “Black Wednesday” the problems started when Perth residents and businesses were asked to swelter out forty-plus degree heat without their air conditioners and fridges or risk fines of up to $10,000.

Western Power apologised for its “inadequate and incomplete communication” over the power crisis and then spent millions on expensive TV commercials in an attempt to rebuild its reputation, trust and goodwill with the community of Perth.

It tried to make public heroes of community members and Western Power workers. BP could try the same although I doubt a cynical public would believe the ads.

**7. Fire the culprit.**

Certainly President Obama is mad and wants to sack the person judged ultimately responsible for the leak, whether it's the head of deepwater drilling or the CEO.

**8. Poll the public.**

Regular, in-depth public polling should take place now and for months to come to find out what actions the public supports and what actions it doesn't.

**9. Share the data.**

All that BP learns should be shared with government officials, academics and rivals.

Although this could backfire as ExxonMobil in particular was ridiculed at a hearing in Washington recently for including plans to deal with walruses - an animal whose range is confined to the Arctic - in its plans for a Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

**10. Be humble.**

After the oil leak stops, don't brag.

Here are 5 lessons all leaders should be aware of when dealing with the community over a public issue:

1. Plan for a crisis in advance.
2. Clarify your communication objectives.
3. Determine your spokesperson and road test their skills prior to a crisis.
4. Stick to the facts. Show empathy with those affected.
5. Develop an open and honest relationship with the media, avoid "No Comment" and be proactive.

Please consider:
Tuesday August 3rd 2010, Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, Australia
Winning the Media Game

Numbers are strictly limited so book here].

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