Previous installments of this blog that have focused on BP’s media management (part I here and part II here) have discussed whether or not BP made good use of social media in the course of this crisis. This ignores, perhaps, the glaringly obvious point that the rest of their media management has come under heavy fire.

The Background

Hayward: The focus of much of the news coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Most of the criticism has revolved around the high-profile CEO, Tony Hayward, whose comment “I want my life back” on Facebook, was widely viewed as crass after oil workers had lost their lives in the original explosion. It prompted President Obama to state “He wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements” (see full coverage of the comment from the now-nicknamed “bumbler from BP’s” on the Guardian website here).

More recently Hayward’s day off sailing was widely covered by news outlets, criticised as “insulting” and “rubbing salt into the wounds” (BBC coverage here) by a Greenpeace campaigner and as his “biggest mistake yet” by PR Week (here).

The Diagnosis

Firstly, perhaps the problem here is simply too much messing around with social media and not enough management of the mainstream media. (This was a recent criticism of the healthcare industry made by a pharmaceutical communications director – see PR Week coverage here.) It’s difficult to know if making their blog distracted BP’s attention from straightforward gaffe management, but it is certainly clear what they should be focusing on now, and that is vetting Hayward’s schedule and his public statements very thoroughly. If that means he has to go without sailing for a few months, then so be it.

Secondly, how did the media conversation become a process story about Hayward and PR in the first place? Perhaps partly because the story has dragged on for so long and the bare facts of the crisis and the cleanup have only so much mileage for news outlets, but perhaps also because BP hasn’t pushed an alternative conversation hard enough. What that alternative conversation is, and how to make it interesting enough to keep this kind of story in the background is not obvious, at least to me, but someone should be asking what BP should be talking about instead.

With the scale and coverage of the oil spill, the public are not looking to give BP the benefit of the doubt for actions of corporate social responsibility. That’s not to say they should stop, but first and foremost damage limitation and a shift away from these nonsense stories that make them look heartless and out-of-touch should be the name of their game.