How Not to Rescue Your Public Image: BP Hires PR Advisors From Wall Street, Dick Cheney

Last Updated Jun 7, 2010 11:56 AM EDT

BP CEO Tony Hayward seems not to have a grasp of Marshall McLuhan's 1964 exhortation, the medium is the message,* which instructs us that the thing you use to communicate is as important as the content of the communication itself. How else to explain that BP has hired former vice president Dick Cheney's campaign press secretary as its public relations head, in addition to handing its crisis communications assignment to the Brunswick Group, a pr firm best-known for representing Wall Street. Brunswick is closely tied to Goldman Sachs' combative chief spokesman, Lucas Van Praag, who was a partner there from 1992 to 1999.

In the grand scheme of things, these are minor details and the links are indirect. But managers should remember that the days when consumers were more interested in what companies say -- as opposed to whom they use to say it -- are over. We live in a transparent, connected world, in which anyone can discover that Brunswick is an historic mouthpiece for Big Oil (it represented Shell in 2004 when the company's chairman resigned after allegations that the company had exaggerated its oil and gas reserves).

BP has an impossible problem with its image, as it tries to simultaneously plug the oil spill in the Gulf, apologize for same, and make good the damage it has done. So there was no reason for BP to connect itself to Cheney and Goldman/Wall Street -- villains No.2 and 3 (after BP itself) in the pantheon of post-Bush America -- and yet the company took the opportunity to do it anyway.

What's next, hiring Kim Jong-Il as an international strategy advisor?

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