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Home arrow Communication arrow Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research
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British Petroleum and the Gulf Oil Spill: We Will Make This Right

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico experienced a fire and an explosion. Workers were killed and injured, and thousands of gallons of oil began to leak into the Gulf each day (Guardian, 2010). Reed (2012) reported that “on television screens and in the pages of magazines, bewildered Americans saw oil plumes rising, livelihoods crumbling and seabirds dying in the viscous crude” (p. B3). The leak was sealed 5 months later, on September 19 (Guardian, 2010), after 4.9 million barrels of oil had flowed into the Gulf, “the largest oil spill in the industry's history” (Harish, 2012). The U.S. attorney general announced a criminal investigation into the spill (Cooper & Baker, 2010). The spill affected BP's stock price (Maouawad & Schwartz, 2010) and profits (Werdegier, 2010). The federal government assessed a record fine for safety violations at the refinery (Greenhouse, 2010). This tragedy was a disaster not only for the Gulf area and the victims but also for BP's image. Choi (2012) examined the frames employed in BP's press releases, whereas Smithson and Venette (2013) analyzed BP's congressional testimony. Muralidharan, Dillistone, and Shin (2011) investigated BP's use of social media, and this section examines messages directed at the public.

This analysis focuses on two forms of image repair messages: eight full-page newspaper ads (most ran multiple times) and 15 television commercials (see, for example, BP, 2011). The same themes—and indeed the same sources—tended to be used in both types of messages, so newspaper and television ads will not be analyzed separately. The newspaper advertisements were taken from the print version of the New York Times (and at least one of the ads also appeared in USA Today). Television commercials were obtained from BP's webpage (BP.com) and YouTube.

The messages presenting BP's defense employed three strategies: mortification, bolstering, and corrective action. The greatest emphasis was placed on corrective action. The way in which these three strategies were enacted in BP's messages will be discussed separately in this section.

Mortification

First, BP apologized for the oil spill. Tony Hayward, BP's CEO, used a television commercial to apologize: “To those affected and your families, I'm deeply sorry.” The newspaper advertisement “We Will Make This Right” (BP, 2010b) said, “The spill and the hardships endured by Gulf families and businesses never should have happened.” BP was careful not to explicitly accept the blame for the oil spill, but in these messages it did not attempt to shift the blame or to deny responsibility.

Bolstering

The second strategy BP employed in its image repair effort was bolstering. The company argued that many of its employees were from the Gulf area and understood the people and the problems they were experiencing. “We Will Make This Right” (BP, 2010b) declared, “The region is home to thousands of BP employees, so we also feel the impact.” A television spot on “Claims” featured Darryl Willis, who said, “I was born and raised in Louisiana. I volunteered for this assignment [processing claims for reimbursement] because this is my home.” He said the same thing in a newspaper ad (BP, 2010c). Another employee who appeared in a commercial was Fred Lemond (BP, 2010d), who explained, “I grew up on the Gulf Coast and I love these waters.” Iris Cross similarly declared in a television advertisement, “I was born in Louisiana. My family still lives here.” In a newspaper ad, she said, “I was born here. I'm still here, and so is BP. We're committed to the Gulf. For everybody who loves it, and everyone who calls it home.” The company's employees argued that they were from the Gulf, so they cared deeply about the area.

Corrective Action

Without question, the bulk of this image repair discourse focused on corrective action. The television spot from CEO Tony Hayward declared, “We know it is our responsibility to . . . do everything we can so this never happens again.” Preventing recurrence of the oil spill is a clear instance of corrective action. None of the other messages in the texts examined here included this argument. Like mortification, this aspect of corrective action was fleeting.

BP's sustained use of corrective action had two major elements across several topics. The two major elements were promises to correct problems and descriptions of success in corrective action. The topics were similar although not identical in both elements, including stopping the oil spill, cleaning up the oil, cleaning the beaches, helping businesses, helping wildlife, and funding future research on the environment in the Gulf. I also want to discuss BP's use of spokespersons in the defense.

Promises to Correct Problems

Stopping the Oil Flow

The ad “Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Response” stated that “BP has taken full responsibility for dealing with the spill.” Notice that this statement, which was repeated in several newspaper advertisements (such as “Making This Right: Clean-Up”) does not accept responsibility for the spill but for the cleanup. As such, it enacts corrective action rather than mortification. In “Making This Right: Clean-Up” (BP, 2010d, p. 7), BP explained that one element of corrective action was finding and capturing oil from the spill:

Every morning, over 50 spotter planes and helicopters search for oil off the coast, heading to areas previously mapped with satellite imagery and infrared photography. Once oil is found, they radio down to the 6,000 ships and boats of all sizes that are supporting the clean-up effort and working to collect the oil. There are thousands of local shrimping and fishing boats organized into task forces and strike teams, plus specialized skimmers mobilized from as far as the Netherlands.

The message describes the size of the cleanup effort (“over 50 spotter planes and helicopters,” “6,000 ships and boats of all sizes”), the advanced technology employed (“satellite imagery and infrared technology”), and the organization (“task forces and strike teams”). The television commercial “Gulf of Mexico Response: Clean-Up” makes these arguments and shows video of airplanes, helicopters, maps, and cameras. These advertisements acclaim the tremendous cleanup effort deployed by BP. BP noted that it was paying for the cleanup: “We're paying for all legitimate clean-up costs” (BP, 2012, p. 10). BP's image repair effort promised to stop the oil leaking and to clean up the oil.

Cleaning Up Beaches

The company also promised to clean up the beaches: “Our beach cleanup operations will continue until the last of the oil spill has been skimmed from the sea, the beaches and estuaries have been cleaned up, and the region has been pronounced oil free” (BP, 2010e, p. 9). This is also a clear example of corrective action promising to fix the problem.

$20 Billion Claim Fund

A television commercial (“Continuing Commitment”) reported the fund set aside for recovery: “The $20 billion BP committed has helped fund environmental and economic recovery.” Another television advertisement added that this fund would be “administered independently” and would come “at no cost to the taxpayers” (“Gulf of Mexico Response: Beaches”). A New York Times advertisement explained,

Our focus has been on helping the fishermen, small businesses, and others who haven't been able to work until the spill is cleaned up, by making payments to replace their lost monthly income. These payments will continue for as long as needed. (BP, 2010c, p. A9)

BP's defense repeatedly touted the $20 billion claim fund as part of its corrective action.

Wildlife

BP also discussed its work to help wildlife affected by the Gulf oil spill: We have rehabilitation centers all over the Gulf, 30 teams of specialists from top wildlife organizations. When we bring the animals in, we stabilize them, we clean them up, and then we help them recover. We release them into safe, oil-free environments [video of teams cleaning wildlife, releasing to wild]. (“Gulf of Mexico Response: Wildlife”)

This utterance discussed BP's commitment to helping wildlife in the Gulf.

$500 Million Research Fund

A television commercial reported that BP had created a research fund to study the environment and wildlife in the Gulf: “We've established a $500 million fund so independent researchers can study the Gulf's wildlife and environment for ten years” (“Gulf Coast Update: Our Ongoing Commitment”). This fund shows BP's long-term commitment to the environment in the Gulf.

Success: Performance, Not Just Promises

The image repair messages from BP offered several arguments about success in repairing damage from the oil spill: The flow of oil into the Gulf has stopped, oil has been collected, beaches are open, claims have been paid, and businesses have been restored. Each of these ideas will be discussed in this section.

Stopping the Oil Spill

The second major element of corrective action touted BP's success in responding to the Gulf oil spill. In addition to the claims fund, the television advertisement explained that “another $14 billion has been spent on response and cleanup” (“Continuing Commitment”). This money was well spent because “oil is no longer flowing into the Gulf” (BP, 2010f, p. 5). This argument is repeated in another advertisement: “No oil has flowed into the Gulf for weeks” (“Making This Right: Economic Investment Environmental Restoration,” p. 18). BP touted its success in stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Collecting the Oil

BP's defense reported, “We have recovered more than 27 million gallons of oil-water mixture from the Gulf. Other methods have also helped remove millions of additional gallons of oil from the water” (BP, 2010d, p. 7).

Beaches Are Open

A television commercial informed viewers that “all beaches and waters are open for everyone to enjoy” (“Gulf Coast Update: Our Ongoing Commitment”). This was good news for tourists and those who made a living from tourism.

Claims Paid

BP explained in a television commercial (“Gulf of Mexico Response: Communities 1”), “We've made over 120,000 claims payments.” Another commercial reported, “We've paid over $400 million in claims” (“Gulf of Mexico Response: Communities 2”). Claims had been paid from the $20 billion fund.

Business Restored

The television commercial “Tourism in the Gulf” featured people from four states discussing the great tourism season they experienced:

This was the Gulf's best tourism season in years. All because so many people wanted to visit us in Louisiana [Bill Kearney, Galatoire's Restaurant, New Orleans, LA]. They came to see us in Florida [Ron Hardy, Gulf World, Panama City Beach, FL]. Nice try. They came to hang out with us in Alabama [Shaul Zislin, The Hangout, Gulf Shores, AL]. Once folks heard Mississippi had the welcome sign out, they couldn't wait to get here [Karen Sock, Gulf Coast Business Council, Biloxi, MS].

Three of these people are from businesses and one from a business association, talking up tourism in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. Similarly, the television spot “Voices from the Gulf: Best Place” featured multiple spokespersons touting the Gulf as a great vacation spot:

Everybody knows the best place for a good time is Mississippi [Rip Daniels, Harrison County Tourism Commission, Gulfport, MS]. And that's only till they've visited us in Louisiana [Tom Hymel, Delcambre Direct Seafood, Delcambre, LA]. Which is a distant second to sunny Florida [Dawn Moliterno, Visit South Walton, South Walton, FL]. For a beautiful vacation, nothing beats Alabama [Bill Barrick, Belingrath Gardens, Theodore, AL]. OK, we'll never agree on who's best, but we can all agree on one thing: The Gulf's the world's number one vacation spot. And we've gone all out to make this year the best ever. Mississippi has wonderful people, great music, and the beautiful outdoors. Louisiana has the best seafood you'll ever eat: shrimp gumbo, crab cakes, etouffee. Florida means beautiful beaches and sugar white sand. Actually, experts agree that the best beaches are here in Alabama. Which can't compare to a good time on the Gulf in Mississippi. Louisiana fresh catch. Florida beaches. Alabama beauty. Mississippi outdoors. Don't miss the world's good time headquarters. And we're 100% open for business. I'm glad we got that settled. [A cordial invitation to visit the Gulf. Sponsored by BP.]

Like the previous ad, this message featured three people from businesses and one from a business association, all discussing the Gulf as a fantastic vacation destination. Other ads featured positive statements from vacation rental brokers from Florida (“Voices from the Gulf: Florida Business Owners”), Louisiana restaurant owners (“Voices from the Gulf: Florida Business Owners”), a Mississippi fisherman (“Voices from the Gulf: Mississippi Fishermen”), and an Alabama beach service (“Voices from the Gulf: Alabama Beaches”). For example, Ike Williams (Ike's Beach Service) appeared in the television advertisement “Voices from the Gulf: Alabama Beaches”:

BP said they were gonna clean it up and help people impacted. They kept their word. Beaches are clean, our snowbirds are happy, my boys are busy, we're getting equipment ready for the season, management companies are taking reservations every day.

Spokespersons

An important aspect of BP's image repair effort is its use of sources for these messages. First, the CEO made a public statement in a television commercial. Hayward's presence showed that BP's management was committed to dealing with the oil spill. Second, several people featured in both newspaper ads and television commercials were BP employees who stressed their roots, and their families' roots, in the Gulf. This placed a local face on the image repair effort. It showed that the more “ordinary” employees of BP understood those affected by the spill, probably shared their values, and had credibility from their background. Finally, BP television commercials employed multiple spokespersons from Gulf businesses and business organizations (often noting in the advertisement that the speakers were not compensated for their appearance) talking about help from BP and the resurgence of business and tourism in the Gulf. Use of people who were “victims” of the oil spill to tout BP's success in its response to the Gulf oil spill adds an additional kind of credibility to the image repair effort.

Evaluation

This analysis is not designed to assess BP's responsibility for the spill but to evaluate how well the image repair effort was designed and executed. BP took responsibility for the cleanup (if not for the spill itself). Use of people in the organization who were born and raised in the Gulf area bolstered the image repair effort; use of those who probably had been hurt by the oil spill enhanced the credibility of the image repair effort. Most important of all, corrective action (with multiple components) had two elements: promises and performance. The newspaper and television ads touting the successes of BP's response to the oil spill were effectively designed, given the situation the company faced. Showing the success of corrective action is not standard practice in image repair; most instances of corrective action merely promise corrective action. BP provided considerable evidence, including statistics (six thousand ships and boats used for cleanup, a $20 billion claim fund, more than 120,000 claims paid, another $14 billion in response and cleanup), quotations (on the resurgence of tourism), as well as pictures and video (of the cleanup in action, clean beaches, and tourists flocking to the Gulf) to support its image repair strategies. BP's use of evidence was impressive. BP's image repair effort may have established a new “gold standard” for image repair.

I also want to mention a road not taken. In September 2010, BP issued a report that shared blame for the tragedy with two of BP's corporate partners: Transocean and Halliburton (Urbina, 2010). The image repair messages examined here, however, made no attempt to blame others, even in part, for the spill. That argument might have been useful for litigation, but blaming others would have compromised BP's image repair effort. Although it might be possible to differentiate between taking full responsibility for the cleanup and blaming others for the spill, that was a distinction BP would have had difficulty conveying to the public. So BP's image repair effort was generally well designed. However, bad news leaked out during BP's campaign, undermining this defense. For example, during the trial for fines and penalties, the Justice Department's lead prosecutor Michael Underhill declared, “Reckless actions were tolerated by BP, sometimes encouraged by BP” (Krauss & Meier, 2013, p. B1). One cannot control messages from others, and at times such messages can interfere with an image repair effort. Conclusion

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a tragedy on many levels. The purpose of this paper is not to determine to what extent BP was “really” responsible but to assess its image repair efforts and to understand and evaluate that discourse. Two key features of BP's defense are (1) its reports on the outcomes of its corrective action and (2) its use of spokespersons (employees from the Gulf and those adversely affected by the spill). BP's image repair effort clearly would not have persuaded everyone, but it was very well designed. BP reported profits of almost $8 billion for the fourth quarter of 2011 (Krauss & Werdigier, 2012), so the company has managed to weather this disaster. This case study also illustrates the fact that other sources (e.g., the Justice Department) can create messages that may undermine image repair efforts.

 
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