Scandal-plagued BP has resorted to drilling for its own news in the wake of the tidal wave of negative coverage of its Gulf Oil Spill from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. The company has dispatched its “reporters” from its internal newsletter (Tom Seslar and Paula Kolmar) to file reports from the company’s point of view.
As you can see from this hilariously over-the-top bit of fawning praise from Kolmar, the company’s perspective is markedly less critical of the company than the mainstream media:
“Triangles, circles, v-angles: precision shapes at sea executed by shrimping vessels and choreographed by skimming perfectionists to stop any oil from potentially getting close to Alabama’s coast. Though there isn’t oil close to shore, practices and rehearsals occur almost daily in preparation. [...] From the relative comfort of a large square deck with a cold bottle of water always in hand, and an air-conditioned TV room with comfy sofas a level below, I witnessed beauty preparing to face the beast. Miss Jasmine, the most experienced local shrimping vessel, beautifully painted with a colourful dragon streaming along her sides, pulled the folded boom in place. Then gently pulling along her side, another vessel took on a rope from Miss Jasmine. With barely a pause, the two boats moved apart at the same speed, spreading the boom into a v-shape just like birds form in the sky. [...] A ballet at sea as mesmerising as any performance in a concert hall, and worthy of an audience in its own right.”
If you like Kolmar’s work, you can read some of her earlier pieces like “Musical Interlude: How BP is Helping New Orleans Residents Rebuild, Two Years After Katrina.” Another interesting piece I turned up was “Grassroots Success in Colombia: For the past 20 years, BP and Colombia have grown together through good times and bad.” I was also able to find a reference that may have also written for “Oil Mill Gazeteer” the official publication of the International Oil Mill Superintendents Association.
BP has actually been filing their own reports since May 10th, but Seslar’s report appears to be the first one to make it into the public consciousness where it’s being lampooned by Rachel Maddow, BoingBoing, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos and even the Columbia Journalism Review and Wall Street Journal (which acquired a copy of BP’s internal newsletter “Planet BP”).
This phenomena isn’t actually new for an oil company; Chevron engaged in a similar activity – hiring former CNN anchor Gene Randall to favorably report on the company which was packaged into a 60 Minutes-esque newsmagazine piece.
All of this comes at an interesting time, as the fragmentation of the media is collapsing the old business model the news industry has relied on for decades. As we’re increasingly able to slip into our own insular worlds, surrounded only by media that confirms our notions of the world – I wonder if this strategy will become increasingly effective for reputation management.
Even if the public knows to be skeptical of content directly from BP, there’s an increasing opportunity this content will be picked up by a third party media outlet where “news laundering” can take place (just like money laundering, news laundering attempts to conceal the original source of information in the hopes of making it appear legitimate).
As staff are slashed from budgets, overworked reporters are increasingly leaning on public relations people to supply them with material for their reports as opposed to investigative reporting (which can be an expensive and sometimes fruitless venture – making it antithetical to the healthy bottom line of a profit-driven corporation). Translation: less news will be told by objective third parties.
On YouTube today I noticed that BP has purchased premium access on the front page of the site to promote its flight of videos in response to the mounting Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill crisis. The videos are well-produced, but the effort is a complete failure because BP is attempting to cram the square peg of the traditional mass media into the round hole of social media.
Even though BP has paid for premium access and set the controls for their site to their specifications, their efforts to cap the gushing negative public sentiment is about as effective as their efforts to cap the gushing flow of oil have been:
- Ratings: Comments are disabled, but Youtube users are still able to rate the videos – all of which have dismal ratings that hover around one star as well as “dislike” ratings that vastly overwhelm the “like” ratings.
- Response Videos: The recommended or related videos that appear on the right menu next to BP’s videos are overwhelmingly dominated by negative content about BP.
- Website: BP doesn’t even have full control over its own web presence; Google Sidewiki (currently underutilized, fortunately for BP) allows the discussion about the oil spill to take place on BP’s site unabated (to say nothing of the myraid other venues people have for connecting and sharing opinions).
The bottom line is that social media is a democratic meritocracy in which we have only the illusion of control. Trying to crowd out public opinion by buying up search terms or premium placement is ultimately ineffective because as John Gilmore once said “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
The question PR pros should be posing to their clients is: “If it ALL were to come out – what would you do differently?” – that’s the new reality. It’s mind-boggling to think that BP’s leadership actually thought they could conceal the repeated violations, the damning internal reports, and the scientific data showing other leaks and massive underwater plumes of oil – all of which are made far worse for BP’s having attempted to conceal them in the first place.
BP is literally facing the spectre of dissolving as a corporation – what’s the harm in allowing the public to have its say? Could things possibly get worse than they are now?
"...and you shall have no pie."As my parents tell it, when I was an infant my first word wasn't a word - it was an entire sentence. Very little has changed.
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