BP's PR Bonanza

Last Updated May 30, 2011 11:48 PM EDT

After the BP oil spill last year, just about everyone loved to hate BP. CEO Tony Hayward didn't help things when he griped, publicly, "I'd like my life back," after 11 workers died in the explosion and many Gulf fishermen lost their livelihoods. Even worse, BP board Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg told the media how much he cares about the "small people " in the Gulf.

Needless to say, BP's image seemed to be damaged beyond repair with many experts suggesting that they should go out of business or at least change their name.

That was then. This is now.

"Spillionaires" Made
According to an article by Kim Barker in the Washington Post, many of the so-called "small people" who claimed to be injured by the oil spill have amassed small fortunes from BP payouts, which have totaled $16 billion to date. At least some of these payouts have been for overpriced goods and services. For example:
  • A subcontractor charged $15,400 per month to rent a generator that formerly cost $1,500 a month.
  • Another company charged BP more than a $1 million a month for land it had been renting for less than $1,700 a month.
In fact, from these apparent overcharges, Ms. Barker says that many abusers earned the nicknames "spillionaires" or "BP rich." And many seem to come from St. Bernard Parish, a mostly white, working-class community east of New Orleans.

While those that were victimized deserve compensation, outsized benefits from a disaster tainted the image of some of the "victims." And once the oil leak was successfully plugged, the intense dislike of BP started to dissipate-and ironically, BP can almost be seen as the victim. According to Barker, Wayne Landry, chairman of the St. Bernard Parish Council, said: "This parish raped BP... At the end of the day, it really just frustrates me. I'm an elected official. I have guilt by association."

Opportunity for BP to put their actions in perspective and improve their image
Couldn't BP turn the tables and get some "sympathy points" for being victimized by inflated charges and fraudulent claims if the chairman of the offending Parish Council makes such a public admission? I say they can, and they should (even though an excellent post by my BNET colleague, Christopher Elliott, makes the point that BP still has a bad image one year later).

Lessons we can learn
What all business can learn is that when there is a crisis, even a disastrous one such as the BP oil spill, there is always light at the end of the tunnel if companies follow the fact procedure and do the "right thing." After making a series of gaffes, BP eventually did follow this procedure, albeit later than they should.

From Ms. Barker's article, now BP now has the opportunity to use an admission from a credible source to turn the tables and come out looking better.

What do you think about BP's image in light of the latest revelations?

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Ira Kalb is president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California (USC). Follow him on Twitter.
image courtesy of flickr user Amy Phetamine
  • Ira Kalb

    Ira Kalb is president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California. He has won numerous awards for marketing and teaching, authored ten books and created marketing inventions that have made clients and students more successful. He is frequently interviewed by various media for his expertise in branding, crisis management and strategic marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @irakalb