“PR” doesn’t stand for Problem Repair

Associated Press Television News photographer Rich Matthews went diving in the Gulf of Mexico to take a closer look. (AP Photo)

The public relations industry is taking a beating lately because of the BP Oil catastrophe since those in charge seem to think PR stands for “Problem Repair.”

Whether it’s customer service, product design, political popularity or a giant gash you cut in the bottom of the ocean, PR can’t fix the root cause of your troubles. Sure, public relations practitioners not adhering to the Code of Ethics can divert attention away from the situation, but they cannot do so indefinitely. At some point, the truth will be revealed, the problem will continue to grow, people will no longer be fooled and the ultimate answer — fixing the problem — will have to be addressed.

Ad Age recently interviewed “Leroy Stick,” the pseudonym of the creator behind @BPGlobalPR on Twitter. In the interview, Stick said:

I started this account because I think most people in PR are liars and most people in the media don’t have the balls to call them out on it. There’s a system set up where companies make press releases and the media regurgitates them. Personally, I’d love it if more journalists delved into why companies say what they say rather than simply presenting what they say.

I can’t help but think a little about the pot calling the kettle black, since “Leroy Stick” won’t reveal his true identity and is, therefore, also a liar. But I digress. The bigger problem is that BP executives and government officials all the way up to President Barack Obama are looking to public relations professionals to make this problem go away. There is only one way to the make the problem of oil flowing into the ocean go away: stop the gusher you created.

Talking about sealing the gash won’t close it. Pointing fingers at who might be responsible won’t let nature start its cleaning process. Demanding money or agreeing to pay it won’t bring back the livelihoods of people affected by oil slicks hitting beaches. Having a photo opportunity with the families of the oil workers killed in the explosion won’t bring those men back. And trying to change the subject to a political agenda pushing for more controls over greenhouse gas emissions won’t save the fish, the birds and the mammals being poisoned to death.

I’ve been involved in media relations and public relations as a journalist, a practitioner and a university instructor for more than 20 years. I’ve learned a few things along the way. One of the things I’ve had to teach to students, colleagues and bosses is that PR can help you explain difficult answers and it can help you repair your reputation after you’ve had to publicly offer a difficult answer. But PR is not the answer.

So if you have horrible customer service, pushing PR messages about how great your Twitter team is handling complaints about it won’t help in the long run.

If you have a dangerous product, pushing PR messages about how much you care about your customers won’t change the fact they are at risk.

If you’re responsible for opening a hole in the Earth that is spewing millions of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, pushing PR messages about how you’re going to make things right won’t stop the oil flow.

And if you’re the man elected to lead this nation in times of crisis, pushing PR messages about caring for the environment more than the other political party won’t change the fact that people disapprove of your leadership.

Sure, I’ve stood up and said I’m responsible for oil spills. But as a public relations professional, I’m here to tell you we don’t cause bad customer service, dangerous products, holes in the ocean floor or poor leadership decisions. So stop expecting us to be miracle workers. Fix your damn problem; then we can talk.

The Internet is truth’s greatest ally and enemy

It’s amazing how quickly you can share the truth and rumors online these days, so please be careful. This is especially the case when you’re dealing with a company or a person’s reputation. Take for example, the latest corporate victim: BP.

Granted, there aren’t too many people looking upon the giant petroleum company as a victim given the oil catastrophe playing out in the Gulf of Mexico. But on Facebook last night, someone shared what was supposedly a BP ad from 1999 that showed the company’s logo and the tagline, “We’re bringing oil to American shores.”

My first reaction was the same as my friend on Facebook, who summed it up with the usual “OMG” and “WTF” exclamations because it was so unbelievable. And then it hit me rather quickly: this was too unbelievable to be true. I decided to click on the logo to go to the original post. It was on Alltop, having been fed from a University of Oregon professor’s blog. Sure enough, people were commenting on it, noting that the logo wasn’t the one BP was using in 1999, so it’s unlikely this was real. Further research with just a few clicks and I found out it was an attempt at humor by a T-shirt company.

BP's logo, 1979-2000

The worst part is that the Alltop post alone has nearly 11,000 views and it’s unknown how many people have talked about it, shared it via social networks or expressed their outrage in comments sections without bothering to think for themselves.

Looking back, two things made me doubt the validity of the piece within seconds of my first reaction. First, I knew that BP’s logo used to have just the company’s initials. A lot of people might not have been immediately aware of that, however, so think about what else might be wrong. This is an oil company, sure, but how many of their customers thought of them that way before the Gulf fiasco began? We’d more likely think of them as selling us gasoline, and they’d hardly use “bringing oil” in some type of campaign.

So, please, think of all the famous quotes and axioms when you go to share something online:

You have two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you speak.

Measure twice, cut once.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see.

The truth is out there.

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

When in doubt leave it out.

Just the facts please, ma’am.

It’s so easy to spread false information online, but there are resources available to help you do the right thing. Thanks to sites like Wikipedia, Snopes and, of course, the all-powerful Google, you’ll find the good, the bad and the ugly of truth and lies. Of course, it’s a lot harder to get people to listen to the truth since it is rarely as titillating as a rumor. After all, “the plain truth” and “the hard facts” have a tough time being as interesting as a “juicy rumor.” But try to do your best. Someone’s reputation and credibility is on the line — and so is yours.

I’m responsible for oil spills – and so are you

I’m responsible for the giant oil spill happening in the Gulf of Mexico at BP’s Deepwater Horizon site. And so are you. Oh, sure, we aren’t the ones who literally drilled into the sea floor and then made bad management decisions somewhere along the way that led to this catastrophe. But BP and its brethren exist and flourish because we, as citizens of this planet, are petroleum addicts. So it’s a bit tiring to hear everyone call for “the criminals at BP” to be severely punished. When a crack dealer sells his product to a junkie, both he and his buyer are criminals. It’s the same thing with oil and the resulting petroleum.

We’re junkies. We can’t get enough of the stuff to satiate our needs. We keep saying we’re going to do things differently, we’re going to kick the habit and we are going to make better choices before our addiction kills us. And then we pay the peddler on the corner another $3 per gallon for just one more hit before we change our ways — starting tomorrow.

And it’s not just the gasoline we pour into our cars and trucks that feed our addiction. Almost everything you come in contact with from the moment you arise in the morning to the instant you drift off to sleep at night is in your life because of that oil pouring out of a gaping wound in our planet. Here’s a partial list of the approximately 6,000 items made from petroleum. And even if you don’t use products with a petroleum base, which is highly unlikely, they are entering your life by means that use petroleum.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the world consumes 85.5 million barrels of oil per day. The United States alone consumes nearly 19.5 million barrels of that per day. Reports now indicate that at its peak, the Deepwater Horizon leak was pouring at least 840,000 gallons, or about 20,000 barrels of oil, per day into the ocean.

So, what can we do? As a friend said yesterday, “We are the problem and the solution.” Perhaps we need to take a page from Alcoholics Anonymous and begin our own program for kicking the habit. AA relies a lot on spirituality for its members to find redemption. I’m not a terribly spiritual person, so I’m not as inclined to believe that some almighty God is going to save us from ourselves. It’s probably more likely that, as the comedian Robin Williams once said, “Some day, God’s going to look down and say, ‘I gave you a nice planet and you f***ed it up.'”

But we need to start somewhere, so why not here, with a 10-step program, at a blog poetically called Here Comes Later:

  1. We must admit we are powerless over petroleum —that our current lifestyles are unmanageable without it.
  2. We must believe there is a cause greater than our own convenience to restore sanity.
  3. We must make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the only planet we have.
  4. We must take a fearless moral inventory of ourselves and our actions.
  5. We must admit to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of how we are contributing to the supply and demand curve of petroleum.
  6. We must admit our demands are flawed and, if we cannot reduce them, find other ways to meet them.
  7. We must make a list of all things in nature we are harming and be willing to make amends to them.
  8. We must continually take a personal inventory of how we are using petroleum-based products and work every day to reduce our reliance upon them.
  9. We must share our awakening with anyone who will listen, help them understand how they are just like us and work together to solve this growing planetary problem.
  10. We must stop blaming others, be they oil company executives, manufacturers or politicians, for the demands we place upon them to meet our every want and need immediately at an affordable price as if it is a right we have earned.

Will this solve the problem? Not right away. But pointing fingers at oil company executives alone isn’t a solution. And driving by ourselves in gas-guzzling SUVs to purchase compact fluorescent light bulbs that we carry home in recycled shopping bags isn’t enough.

Perhaps the numbered list above needs to start with the idea that we hold up a picture of the oil spill in a mirror, look into our own faces and say, “I did this, I’m sorry, and it’s time for things to change.”

(Photo by NASA.)

UPDATE: A new collection of photos that show some of the impact of this catastrophe on the Louisiana shore is now available at The Big Picture blog.

UPDATE: “Twice as much oil as originally estimated could have been spewing from the leaking well, new figures given by scientists show. Anywhere from 42 million gallons to more than 100 million gallons have already flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, the Associated Press reports. It is the third time the U.S. government has increased its numbers.” (From USA Today article)