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 , Staff writer

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    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.

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.

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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.”

BP seems to have learned some lessons from Exxon Valdez, says Davia Temin, whose company, Temin Co., in New York, does crisis management.

“They are saying all the right things,” she says, but adds “the actions ring hollow.”

She says the public still does not believe Mr. Hayward yet. “He has made gaffes, and I know when you are under pressure, it’s easy to make gaffes. I’m sure he’s going on very little sleep and BP is making this up as they go.”

Damage control tips

Here are some suggestions Ms. Temin and other crisis managers suggest for the embattled oil giant:

• Take Mr. Hayward off the air. Temin thinks the company should deputize someone else to speak for the company, preferably a woman.

“They need someone who can get more in touch with your emotions,” she says. “Hayward is too young and too British.”

• The company needs to stop shooting from the hip, says Richard Torrenzano of the Torrenzano Group in New York.

“They need to rehearse and determine what they should say and what they should not say,” says Mr. Torrenzano, who was the chief spokesman for the New York Stock Exchange during the crash of 1987.

Even more important, Torrenzano believes BP needs to show some “empathy” to the communities being affected by the disaster. “Right now they have to fix the problem and then have a comprehensive plan to clean up and help the communities,” he says.

• Bring on a high profile team to restore credibility to the company, says John Zogby, the chairman of Zogby International, the polling firm in Utica, New York.

Mr. Zogby would like to see BP form a committee made up of such people as Warren Buffet, the investment guru, Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri.

“They will work with President Obama directly and in effect declare war,” he says.

• Mobilize the entire oil industry and obligate them to provide assistance to BP, says Lukaszewski. Once the industry is mobilized, he says they need to find the solution to shutting down the oil well and teach the US government how it should be prevented in the future.

“BP needs to beg for more intervention,” he says.

Related:

Gulf oil spill: Why is it so hard to stop?

BP live feed doesn't lie: Is BP oil spill plume worse than before?

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