Guest column | C.D. Chamberlain

For BP, appearances matter most

No doubt we were all relieved to learn that BP has made $90 million available to gulf fishermen whose boats have been idled by the ban on harvesting seafood from the waters fouled by the oil leak. BP has offered to hire their boats in a cleanup effort. At least these industrious workers will have a little income that might tide them over until they can resume their occupation. Do not mistake this $90 million for a gracious gift, however. It is what lawyers call a mitigation of losses.

Eventually, civil claims related to loss of income will be brought by fishermen. When these claims are litigated (hopefully settled more justly than the claims brought against Exxon in Alaska), the $90 million will be deducted from the settlement. BP is paying a bit up front to lower later expenses. Settling these claims will lower BP profits. The losses will mean that BP will pay less corporate taxes. Guess who will make up for this loss of revenue?

More interesting than the allocation of $90 million to assist gulf fishermen is the $93 million BP has spent on public relations. Perhaps you have noticed that in addition to the annoying political ads that polluted our television screens, BP has been there as well. We are not told that unprecedented drilling in deep water to reach high pressure oil deposits was a risky adventure at best. We are not told that BP has an unimpressive safety record; as an example, the Texas refinery explosion two years ago that killed 11. We are not told that around the world, BP has cozy relationships with government regulators. We are not informed that research universities are being denied access to the accident site by the Coast Guard and BP. This means there will be no objective, third-party verification of facts. When the matter is litigated, the courts could seal the record so the public will never know the truth.

Instead, we see empathic actors who assure us that BP is deeply concerned about this unavoidable accident and will make all things right. Please pass the anti-nausea medication.

What might spending $93 million for spin control eventually mean? Remember, these millions are being spent on the media. No media outlet will knowingly publish misinformation. In journalism, the greater sin is one of omission. Will the media engage in-depth investigation that produces penetrating analysis? Or will we be treated to minimal reporting that demonstrates "balance?" BP spokespersons will be provided equal time to state their position. Without competent research, BP claims will remain unchallenged. And when BP statements are re-enforced by TV ads; well, that's how the issue gets framed.

Is it likely a newspaper might be tempted to run a non-news story provided by BP? I read an Associated Press report a couple of days ago. After careful research, BP experts have concluded that not only did BP engineers make a few errors (perhaps), their partners in the venture likewise are also culpable. For instance. Halliburton (I must admit I am no fan of that corporation either) supplied cement and the cement failed. Cement is cement. Halliburton didn't install the cement. And so it goes.

This is like running a press release from KFC that 11 spices and herbs make their chicken the tastiest in the world. Might a paper that received thousands in ad revenue be inclined to run this self-serving piece of non-news?

It reminds me of the popular Miami Vice television series of the 1980s. I was surprised to learn that it cost about $35 million per episode to produce that TV show. It was more surprising to learn that $35 million was far more than the city of Miami spent in an entire year to operate its actual vice squad. The TV show depicted a finely honed and effective vice unit. The actual vice squad wasn't like that. Vice remains alive and well in Miami despite what Miami Vice tried to make us think.

No, the oil well blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico is not a public relations problem. It is a real disaster. BP has concluded that it is more important to look good than be good.

C.D. Chamberlain lives in Spring Hill

For BP, appearances matter most 09/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 8:32pm]

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