Politics, policy, and the President’s speech

Criticism of the President’s speech last night ranged from the lack of specific policy asks to the aggressive tone he took in describing what BP would be forced to do.  But those elements are what made the speech a short term winner – and possibly the only viable course of action.

Though it breaks a personal moratorium on referencing Ronald Reagan, the purpose of this speech should have been similar to the 1986 speech after the Challenger disaster.  That speech sought to restore confidence in American ingenuity, which had just taken a very dazzling and public hit.

Obama’s speech had a similar goal – channel and focus people’s emotions.  In his case, he wanted to empathize with Gulf residents and all Americans who will feel the environmental brunt of a company’s mistake.  The policy ideas he put forward are window dressing for the bigger message – he feels your pain, and he’s going to inflict some of it on BP through a relief fund that the oil company will fund but not direct.   (Something that would have been a good idea for BP to set up in the first place.)

Could he come out of this swinging and missing?  Could BP challenge the seizure of their assets in court – and, conceivably, win?  Perhaps, but after waiting 57 days to make this statement, it’s the best message the President has.

Plus, if BP weasels out of the bill some how, the President will still have a chance to make them the bad guy.  Just because a James Bond villain jumps in an escape pod and eludes capture doesn’t make Bond’s effort any less heroic.  It just means that Obama will have to find new and creative ways to hold BP accountable – something like tax credits for owners of local BP gas stations  owners who want to change  their affiliation.

It may not be good policy, but it’s good politics.  As the old saying goes, when you see a mob coming with pitchforks and torches, either grab a torch and join the crowd or start running in another direction.

BP slogs, Exxon blogs

This week, Exxon Mobil launched Perspectives, a blog about “issues, policies, technologies, and trends” surrounding energy development.  Yes, that includes oil, and yes, they kick off by talking about the mess in the Gulf of Mexico.

No, Lionel Osbourne is not a featured blogger.

BP has received the lion’s share of the public scorn since the spill, but other companies remain vulnerable to regulations and increased taxes.  It isn’t an immediate challenge, but Exxon Mobil didn’t wait for the problem to come to them.

It would have been easier, in the short term, for Exxon Mobil to act like the accomplice of the kid who gets punished for a grade school food fight – sit on their hands, let BP continue to be yelled at by authority figures, and keep quiet hoping none of the outrage falls on you.  The problem with that strategy is that, eventually, the story will not be about BP’s specific failings but the failings – and potential failings – of the industry as a whole.

Of course the blog is biased and slanted, but Exxon Mobil makes no effort to hide its involvement.  Perspectives is clearly branded as the official Exxon Mobil company line – take it for what its worth.  And doing that now will help Exxon Mobil’s credibility (at least somewhat) in future discussions about what their obligations should be.  Plus they’ll likely to have some thoughts on what BP’s obligations are too.

Fantastic.

What’s spreading faster, oil or failure?

A local television station in Louisiana ran into some problems trying to interview some spill cleanup workers – and in doing so, highlighted one more way BP is not helping itself in its response to the spill:

Cleanup workers might not be media savvy, but they remain the best face that BP could put on their cleanup efforts (certainly better than a clearly foreign CEO).  Whether the glorified rent-a-cop in this video (and his backpack-clad sidekick) are following orders that contradict BP’s official statements on press availability or they are carrying out a legit safety function isn’t clear.  What is clear is that they are not communications experts.

At least BP can rest easy knowing that, no matter how sophisticated their PR strategy, they weren’t coming out of this oil spill clean.  The administration’s inability to escape criticism is particularly fascinating (and means I have to eat a plate of oil-soaked crow).

Most recently, the President compared the oil spill to 9/11.  Perhaps that’s his way of getting tougher on BP – as the polls are apparently asking for him to do.  The problem of course, is that the President is doing everything he can do – and that just isn’t that much.  After coming into office with promises that he could make government work for people again, the spill underscores that government simply isn’t qualified for the job.

Ultimately, that puts the US government and BP on two sides of the same coin.  Both wind up despised by the people – BP for wielding too much power; the government for impotence.

They did not make this commercial right

This new BP commercial takes responsibility for the oil spill in the Gulf, but it leaves lots to be desired:

For starters, the best way to win over the American public is not with an English accent.  Going back to the 18th century, America, Great Britain, and stuff dumped in the ocean that interrupts commerce have a less-than-stellar relationship.  But more than that, it’s clear that the top leaders of BP are not personally invested in the region.  They may care a great deal, but they’re from England – it isn’t their home.

In a previous post, I mentioned that the residents of the Gulf who are helping with the cleanup would have made for much better – and more sympathetic – spokespersons.  Hayward still could have made an appearance in the commercial, but he shouldn’t have been the focus.

Stylistically, the use of still frames is artistically poignant, but doesn’t make the cleanup effort come to life the way video could.

The bottom line is that BP can say very little right now (outside of, “Hey, the oil stopped gushing!”) to mollify a justifiably upset American public.  But their strategy of replying from the highest levels of the company with detached sympathy does them no favors.

Responding to BP’s response

After yesterday’s crisis management advice for BP, it seems fair to look at what the world’s current least-favorite oil company has been up to online in its response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP devoted a section their company website as a central repository of information about their cleanup efforts.  The pages are very fact-heavy, along with two video responses from BP officials and several pages of pictures.  Essentially, BP’s branded response to the crisis is an online press kit.  While the breadth of information is impressive, this is an exclusively one-way channel.

There are, however, other venues.  BP is one of the driving forces behind DeepWaterHorizonResponse.com, plus an associated Facebook page and Twitter feed. As one might expect, the Facebook page is the best of the group; Deep Water Horizon officials respond to comments with measured, polite answers to legitimate questions; and harsh critics are not censored. It helps that the initiative is not branded as coming solely from BP, thus diffusing some strong emotions folks likely feel toward the company.

It would be nice to see more from the efforts on the ground beyond a few pictures on all of BP’s online properties, something that could evolve as the campaign matures.  It’s a decent enough first step for BP, but it will only work if it’s the first step of many.