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Oil spill cleanup: After digging deep to kill well, BP faces long climb

Killing the well at this point was the easy part of the oil spill cleanup for the beleaguered corporate giant, whose image will be stained, and bottom line impacted, for years to come.

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BP is starting its rebuilding effort in a series of down-to-earth ads showing locally born executives talking about the company's efforts to stay until the clean-up is complete and lives are restored. Communications experts say that's evidence of a company that's settled on a "paid-media" strategy to go around the geyser of negative press that surrounded the spill and BP's role. The strategy also earned BP the ire of President Obama, who in June said about BP's $50 million image campaign: "What I don't want to hear is, when they're ... spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they're nickel-and-diming fishermen and small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time."

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Words and deeds

Nifty branding is what had set BP apart before the Deepwater Horizon accident, as the company transformed itself, according to past CEO John Brown, into a moral market leader that understood that BP "needs a sustainable planet for its own survival."

That concept was enshrined in the introduction of the green helio and the phrase "beyond petroleum" to replace British Petroleum.

BP, however, may have failed to undergird its corporate messaging with responsible behavior on the ground, either out of complacency or a focus on the bottom line as the Deepwater Horizon rig faced cost overruns battling the troublesome Macondo well.

"There was an accumulation of small decisions at the margins about this risk versus that risk, and they all went wrong," says Mark Isaac, an economics professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Ultimately BP would have been better for the environment if they'd decided to be a better oil company."

Indeed, economists say BP has begun to move, often in fits and starts, from trying to control the messages around the oil spill to heeding its lessons. In other words, even in the world of corporate communications, talk is ultimately cheap.

"I think the best thing they can do, and it will take years, is cleaning up the area and getting people back to work," said Tim Sellnow, a crisis communication expert at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, in a university news story. "Then, they need to be proactive and move to the forefront of their industry in oil drilling and oil transportation safety. That would require an entirely new culture in the organization."

Replacing BP's Euro-centric leadership, epitomized by former CEO Tony Hayward, with Gulf Coast-born Robert Dudley and fellow American Doug Suttles hints at the company board's willingness to redirect the BP "culture" toward paying more attention to the frontlines, where drill meets dirt.

Moreover, the future BP, experts say, may be built more as "financial participant," where it would let other companies do some of the exploration work, Phillip Weiss, an analyst with Argus Research, told Bloomberg News.

"My sense is that BP has deep pockets, good leadership, and a solid business model," says O'Rourke at Notre Dame. "It's going to be a rough go for a while for them, and what they've got to say is that the mistakes which led to the explosion … were an aberration rather than the core of the culture. People affected by this are not going to forget, but people are willing in many instances to forgive."