Big Oil’s worst nightmare is, ironically, big oil

Questions may fly about who will pay how much to clean up the latest catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, but the answers affect more than British Petroleum’s cash reserves.  The accident which claimed the lives of rig workers and threatens the coastal environment’s short term health comes just months after President Obama made a big show of opening up new areas to offshore energy exploration.  From a business angle, at risk is the future of offshore oil drilling for BP and any other company that relies on the United States government for exploration rights.  In the coming weeks, the drumbeat to cap the wells and bring the oil derricks back to terra firma will only grow louder, unless BP and their colleagues take the right actions now.

The Action

Eventually, there will probably be a rational explanation of why BP wasn’t entirely responsible for all the economic damage, but as the current debate over financial reform legislation demonstrates, rational explanations will do little to convince populist politicians. In addition to directly funding clean-up efforts, BP would be wise to work through local governments to administer small business development programs to help industries affected by the spill get back on their feet – and possibly even exceed their previous production.

Working through local and state governments is especially key.  Criticisms of BP are most likely to come from those voices, but if they are satisfied with relief efforts, they could be powerful allies.

Incidentally, BP should not act alone in this.  Energy companies have been asking to drill for resources in the waters off the U.S. shoreline for a long time, and the most compelling argument against them has come to realization.  While BP’s visibility and leadership is vital, other companies have a dog in this fight, too.

Messages and Messengers

There are two important themes BP and the industry must advance.  First, they must highlight what they are doing to rebuild – the programs they put in place as well as the results.  The second (which involves the whole industry, is to re-affirm the value of offshore drilling.  In both cases, the people delivering the messages matter as much as the messages themselves.

Toyota’s handling of the safety issues which plagued them earlier this year offers some good advice to follow.  Toyota recognized that not only was the perception of their cars damaged, but leaked emails and memos damaged the credibility of their top executives.  Americans don’t trust CEOs, so  Toyota turned to the two groups that could offer credible, positive messages: the engineers and assembly line workers who make the cars, and consumers.

This is where online communication – and especially online video – will be important.  A video channel featuring commentary from government officials and environmental workers will offer a transparent and compelling chronicle of the relief efforts. And oil industry workers – from those on the rigs to those in the refineries – offer an important insight as well.  For them, offshore drilling is as much about putting food on the table as it is about lowering gas prices, and they are now the best spokespersons for the industry.

The reality is that we live in a time where often, government picks winners and losers in the business world – a proposition that puts BP and their colleagues at risk.  Further, since they are hoping to tap reserves in areas controlled by the federal government, The oil industry will not soon shed their image as a huge, greedy, quasi-government entity.  Americans are traditionally suspect of power.  The best thing they could do is admit some level of responsibility, work to rebuild, and – most important – invite the American people and media in to see the details.

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