Thursday, May 27, 2010

BP's disaster management strategy consists of managing the government and the media

Big Oil learned a lot about environmental disaster in the wake of the Exxon Valdez catatrophe (which has now officially been dwarfed by the Gulf oil spill). Unfortunately, they seem to have learned more about managing the media than managing the environment. Exxon was really battered in the media, which at the time were filled with heartbreaking images of dying sea creatures.

BP has been far more proactive in managing the daily news cycle, and often seems to have recruited Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen -- the Administration's man on the scene -- as an unofficial cheerleader who sets the theme for the day. The fine print usually follows much later in the day, after the evening news. Today was another classic example.

This Morning: Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen on NPR's Morning Edition.
"Since yesterday afternoon, British Petroleum and their subcontractors have been pumping a heavy mud down into the well bore below the blowout preventer, and over the course of the last 12 to 18 hours, they've been able to force mud down, and not allow any hydrocarbons to come up."
Midday: President Obama at his news conference.
Personally, I'm briefed every day and have probably had more meetings on this issue than just about any issue since we did our Afghan review. And we understood from day one the potential enormity of this crisis and acted accordingly. So when it comes to the moment this crisis occurred, moving forward, this entire White House and this entire federal government has been singularly focused on how do we stop the leak, and how do we prevent and mitigate the damage to our coastlines.
Tonight: New York Times update.
BP officials, who along with government officials created the impression early in the day that the strategy was working, disclosed later that they had stopped pumping the night before when engineers saw that too much of the drilling fluid was escaping along with the oil.
This is classic spin control. BP makes the President seem out of the loop at the same time he's trying to position himself as being in control.

Favoring public relations at the expense of science, technical expertise and plain old-fashioned morality probably accounts for BP's massive use of a toxic dispersant, illegal in Europe, which the EPA has tried unsuccessfully to keep BP from using. Renowned marine biologist Carl Safina on Democracy Now today:
Well, the dispersant is a toxic pollutant that has been applied in the volume of millions of gallons and I think has greatly exacerbated the situation. I think the whole idea of using a dispersant is wrong, and I think it’s part of the whole pattern of BP trying to cover up and hide the body. They don’t want us to see how much oil, so they’ve taken this oil that was concentrated at the surface and dissolved it. But when you dissolve it, it’s still there, and it actually gets more toxic, because instead of being in big blobs, it’s now dissolved and can get across the gills, get into the mouths of animals. The water below the floating oil was water. Now it’s this toxic soup. So I think that in this whole pattern of BP trying to not let people know what’s going on, the idea of disperse the oil is a way of just hiding the body. But it actually makes the oil more toxic, and it adds this incredible amount of toxic pollutant in the dispersant itself.
In addition to trying to manage the media by keeping as much of the oil as possible underwater and out of sight, BP is also doing its best to keep the media and other observers out of camera range, using the Coast Guard and other government officials as enforcers. Even Jacques Cousteau's son can't get into the area. From Newsweeks's story about BP's Photo Blockade of the Gulf Oil Spill:
Jean-Michel Cousteau (center) was turned away from a wildlife sanctuary by the U.S. Coast Guard after they discovered that an AP photographer was on board.
President Obama clearly is concerned about the Gulf disaster and tried hard during his news conference to take responsibility and communicate that he is in charge. But that won't really be true until he comes down a lot harder on BP than he has so far. They've been running the show from the beginning, and they're still running it. Time to get real.

1 comment:

miriam said...

Ugh. Thanks for unspinning some of this for us. And still, ugh, if not even more so, knowing what is actually going on.