Aug. 27, 2014

BP, Oil Industry Try to Contain Fallout of Spill

PR, Lobby Experts See a Flow of New Business

As BP ramps up its public relations effort to stem the fallout of the oil spill crisis that has badly stained its reputation, the company faces another big hurdle this week when its gaffe-prone chief executive, Tony Hayward, testifies before a House panel.

Although other BP executives have gone before Congressional committees, this will be Hayward’s first Capitol Hill appearance. The London-based CEO has been the target of intense criticism for his handling of the crisis and for what have been viewed as insensitive remarks, including when he told reporters, “I’d like my life back.”

Hayward’s performance before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Thursday could be critical for his future at the company.

“I think this is do-or-die for him,” said Eric Bovim, CEO of Gibraltar Associates, a public relations firm.

Bovim was critical of BP’s public relations campaign, saying it was too reliant on traditional newspaper spots, which he said would have been more appropriate for the Exxon Valdez spill back in 1989 before the Internet age.

But BP has sought to polish its image in recent weeks, hiring a bipartisan media shop, Purple Strategies, which has produced a television spot featuring Hayward.

Purple Strategies is headed by Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos, who has advised a number of GOP presidential campaigns, including that of Mitt Romney in 2008, and Democratic consultant Steve McMahon, who was a senior adviser to Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid.

A consultant familiar with the BP deal said Purple Strategies was given the contract by Hilary Rosen, the D.C. managing partner of the Brunswick Group, a London-based PR firm, which has been handling much of BP’s media work.

The consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ad contract is particularly tricky for Castellanos, whose clients have included Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, a critic of how BP and the federal government have handled the spill.

“The tightrope they are walking is amazingly dangerous,” said the consultant.

A woman who answered the phone at Purple Strategies said that the shop was not taking any questions on the ads and referred all calls to BP.

Neither BP nor Brunswick responded to questions about the public relations effort.

The Brunswick Group has also farmed work out to other politically connected consultants such as John Feehery, a former spokesman to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who now heads the Feehery Group, which specializes in communication and government affairs strategy.

Feehery said his role is to provide rapid response to reporters on the spill.

“I just try to get the facts out,” said Feehery, who, for example, last week e-mailed the latest update on the number of claims that BP had paid out.

BP has also beefed up its in-house media team by hiring Anne Womack-Kolton, former press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney, to head the company’s U.S. media relations.

And BP has sought more control of its message on the Internet by paying to make BP’s website among the first links that pop up when people search for oil spill.

Getting on Message

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