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What BP needs to do to salvage its oil-drenched image

Crisis experts say: Take gaffe-prone CEO Tony Hayward off the air. Lay out a concrete plan to help devastated communities. Bring trusted figures like Warren Buffett or Colin Powell to the discussion.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / June 8, 2010

Protesters hold signs calling for the criminal prosecution of BP's CEO, Tony Hayward, during a rally in front of BP's Washington office Friday afternoon. Crisis managers say Hayward's gaffes have damaged BP's already-sullied image.

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With oil washing onto the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, BP may well be facing one of the biggest corporate crises in the nation’s history.

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So, what should the oil giant do?

One expert thinks they need to take their CEO, Tony Hayward, off the air since he seems to sometimes say things he has to retract later. Another crisis manager wants to see a concrete plan – and fewer TV commercials – to help the communities affected by the oil disaster. And, yet another political crisis observer thinks the company needs to call on wise and trusted Americans to add the gravitas of, say, a Warren Buffet or a Colin Powell to the situation.

The public already has very negative perceptions of BP.

Stark poll numbers for BP

According to a Zogby Interactive poll taken between June 4 and June 7, 61 percent of those surveyed rated BP’s response to the spill as “poor.” A poll earlier in the month by ABC News/Washington Post found 81 percent thought BP’s response was either poor or not so good.

BP, in an effort to better manage the crisis, has hired a Washington public relations firm, Purple Strategies. They are planning to spend $50 million on ads designed to convince Americans the company will “get it done” and “make this right” as it now says in its ads.

The BP effort is considerably different from the reaction of Exxon Corporation in 1989 after a the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground spilling 250,000 barrels of oil onto the shores of Prince William Sound.

“The differences are extraordinary,” says James Lukaszewski, chairman of the Lukaszewski Group and author of several books on crisis management.

For example, the then-chairman of Exxon, Lawrence Rawl, “was feisty and angry and took 35 days to get up to Valdez,” says Mr. Lukaszewski. He says it is also his impression Exxon was reluctant to open up the remote area to the media. And, he says, the company told the US government “stay away, we will handle it.”

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