Sunday, June 13, 2010

Damage Control

BP is in hot (oily) water. With pictures like these (only look if you want your weekend/month/year ruined) almost beating out those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials for saddest-animals-ever all because of your company, there’s a lot of hatred being thrown at the Charles Montgomery Burns of oil companies (oil companies are also the Mr. Burnses of life). Rightly so. This BP disaster caused 11 deaths on an oil rig and is an environmental catastrophe. “PR nightmare” doesn’t even begin to explain the mess BP is in. “We will get it done. We will make this right” is the headline on the nine full-page ads it has been releasing in the New York Times. How do you make something like this right? Time for damage control, but how? Here are some ideas I have about getting back into the good graces of the public after something goes wrong.

Be Proactive: Tackle the issue right away. Get it taken care of before it hits the media, though in this modern Twitter-verse that’s near impossible. Get on it without waiting having to be told to start. Don’t let the public’s anger or disappointment fester for too long (right, FEMA?). Find out the issue, the easiest and most effective way to fix the problem, and get it done quickly. This will show that you care, are aware of the issue, and are attempting to do the right thing. Get on Twitter, send out some press releases, use a bullhorn if you have to; let the public know that you've made a mistake and are doing all you can to remedy the situation.This is something BP is attempting to do, but it has been over 50 days since the disaster, and none of their ideas have been working (though “Top Kill” would make for a really kickass movie title).

Own Up: Something bad happened. We know it, and you know it too. The world’s too quick and connected these days to just think it will blow over. You have to own up to your mistake, right away, if you want to have any credibility and get any sympathy from the masses. Apologize, but don’t go overboard and pretend that you’ve done irreparable damage to the environment and tens of thousands of animals unless you have in fact done that. Acknowledge that you and your company have made a mistake, that you’re going to fix it, and that everything will soon be back to normal. Don't go overboard.You should be genuinely sorry, but don’t beg for forgiveness. Earn it.

Be Patient: For a while, your company/brand is going to hurt financially and from a PR perspective. It’s going to be criticized by the media, lampooned by popular culture, and hated by the public. Eventually, if you try hard enough to get it done and make it right, and you are genuinely sorry, they’ll forgive you. People still buy Toyotas, even if for a while it looked like the company was trying to recreate the movie Speed. However, this oil spill seems different, and BP might not be so lucky. This disaster is like the Exxon Valdez if it was directed by Michael Bay.There really isn’t a way to make things right, especially after you’re responsible for thousands of oily animals and shutting down the World’s Oldest Oyster Company…shuck you, BP.

Switcheroo: Sometimes, your brand is so connected to a terrible event that there is nothing you can do to get away from it. Sometimes, your brand is perceived by the public as evil (Monsanto comes to mind, if you’ve seen Food, Inc.), and no amount of baby-kissing or “I’m sorrys” can change that. The only answer here is to pull a Dick Whitman and switch your identity. Change your name, become a different brand entirely, and a lot of people will be duped. This strategy was best employed by the banana industry, surprisingly enough. There once was a company called the United Fruit Company, and it had a large part in the development of many countries in Latin America. It was accused of neocolonialism. Just read this quote from its Wikipedia page: “The United Fruit Company was frequently accused of bribing government officials in exchange for preferential treatment, exploiting its workers, contributing little by way of taxes to the countries in which it operated, and working ruthlessly to consolidate monopolies.” This is a company that was selling delicious fruit, not oil, yet it was taking part in some truly sketchy things. Noticing that it had a bad reputation, the company rebranded, and is now known as Chiquita. Feel a little guilty now? The point is, BP could take a page out of the United Fruit playbook and rename itself. The name BP will forever be linked to what may become known as “The Year the Ocean Died,” but that doesn’t mean the company needs to be.

Disasters like this fortunately don’t happen that often. BP is at the center of a global disaster that threatens myriad industries: commercial fishing, food, wildlife preservation, and many others are getting screwed over because of a greedy company’s complete and utter screw-up. I don’t see BP coming out of this smelling of roses for a very, very long time (if ever). It will take years and years to forget about April 2010 in the Gulf Coast, and it will take even longer for the Gulf to recover (if it ever does). Unless jamming the pipeline with golf-balls or using donated panty-hose from Hooters girls to soak up the oil works, we’re in for a big sludgy mess. These tips are good for a Toyota-sized snafu, not an epic, environment-changing catastrophe.

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