The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, officially the worst environmental disaster the US has ever faced, has thrown into the spotlight the age-old relationship between the public, politicians and big business.
With up to 100000 barrels per day of oil thrust into the Gulf of Mexico, a power struggle for PR had begun and was one which Tony Hayward, CEO, had lost all by himself. The oft gaffe-prone Chief Executive had not consulted his PR advisors often enough when saying how he ‘wants [his] life back’ or when he decides to race yachts.
But this is just one strand of the tangled web of PR spin society faces. This man has been working extremely long hours, after decamping to Houston to be the face of BP, as well as agreeing to a large number of interviews. Is it impossible for society to think that, in the end, these comments came from fatigue and not personal sentiment?
There is a reason, however, that such outrage has prevailed. The public and local residents are rightfully angry at such a disaster – the loss of jobs, income, tourism, livelihoods etc is devastating. However, their message is based upon emotion and should not overwhelmingly influence the decision making at State level. Moreover, in a quest for larger ratings, the media tap into this emotionally charged sentiment and add fuel to the fire: A count such as ‘DAY 51’ can be seen on news bulletins; the over-emphasis on the fact that BP is a foreign company fuelling anti-foreign investment rhetoric and the use of ‘British Petroleum’ instead of ‘BP’ which is incorrect as the name was legally changed in the mid-nineties.
President Obama can do no right in the face of the public or the media either (ironically this is the same problem Hayward and BP faces). At the beginning, Obama was not quick enough to react. Then he was not emotional enough. Finally he has been forced to be over aggressive which has led to a distinct air of unprofessionalism – he knows ‘whose ass to kick’.
He knows this is as much a PR exercise as a genuine attempt to solve the problem. In conveying this ‘one of the people’ emotional demeanour, Obama has forced BP to create a fund. This fund will be financed by asset selling as well as leverage but it will have wider implications as there will be no dividends paid. American (and British) insurance and pension schemes will now be hardest hit as they rely heavily on this dividend income. This is not to mention the damage to oil supply which BP provides for the US, nor the cost of the moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; both of which could have lasting effects on the economy.
BP has never denied the fact that it is their responsibility, contractually, and has a large number of advisors on every aspect of the clean-up operation. Obama knows that the White House does not have the necessary expertise to solve the problem and must relinquish this responsibility to BP and the affiliate companies.
But in the face of public rage, stoked by the media outburst, Obama and Hayward had to play the PR game. Hayward lost this PR battle long ago. Obama has won. But, dangerously, the economy and (ironically) the public could lose the most and nobody will know until it is too late.