I remember when British Petroleum changed their name to “Beyond Petroleum” in 2000. When pressed about it, I bet most could, which means that their $200 million advertising campaign worked. (Ogilvy & Mather won the 2001 PRWeek award for “campaign of the year,” if you need additional support for its effectiveness.)
One of the most successful greenwashes of all time, the rebranding of BP has led them to be viewed as one of the most “environmentally aware” oil companies. The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is putting pressure on this perspective, of course, but there’s good reason to believe that BP’s image will recover. They’re veterans, don’t forget: of oil clean-ups, congressional “interrogations” of weak safety measures and poor environmental records, and–most importantly–PR disaster management.
(Eric Dezenhall recently wrote about when a “late public-relations honcho for a big petrochemical company” once told him “that he knew it was time to retire when, after a spill, the CEO’s first call was to him: ‘Get up here, Harry, we’ve got a PR problem.”)
PR disaster management is where rhetorician mercenaries spring to action; these are the Navy SEALS of rhetorical situations where making the weaker argument appear stronger seems nearly impossible. The documentary Our Brand is Crisis reveals some of this rhetorical mercenary work:
So after having spent enough time vacillating between rage and despair while reading accounts of the (continuing) oil leak in the Gulf, I thought it best to go to Derrick Jensen for some words of wisdom. In Endgame (Volume 1) Jensen discusses BP’s name change, which they framed as a “statement of priorities.”
This particular type of smokescreen has been most fully developed by a public relations consultant with the appropriately named Peter Sandman. He has been nicknamed the High Priest of Outrage because corporations hire him to dissipate public anger, to put people back to sleep. Sandman has explicitly stated his self-perceived role: “I get hired to help a company to ‘explain to these confused people that the refinery isn’t going to blow up, so they will leave us alone.'”
He developed a five point program for corporations to disable public rage.
First, convince the public that they are participating in the destructive processes themselves, that the risks are not externally imposed. You asked for it by wearing those clothes, says the rapist. You drive a car, too, says the PR guru.
Second, convince them that the benefits of the processes outweigh the harm. You could never support yourself without me, says the abuser. How would you survive without fossil fuels?” repeats the PR guru.
Third, undercut fear by making the risk feel familiar. Explain your response and people will relax (whether or not your response is meaningful or effective). Don’t you worry about it, I’ll take care of everything. Things will change, you’ll see, says the abuser. We are moving beyond petroleum and toward sustainability, says the PR guru.
Fourth, emphasize again that the public has control over the risk (whether or not they do). You could leave anytime you want, but I know you won’t, says the abuser. If we all just pull together, we’ll find our way through, says the PR guru.
Fifth, acknowledge your mistakes, and say (even if untrue) that you are trying to do better. I promise I will never hit you again, the abuser repeats. It is time to stop living in the past, and move together into the future, drones the PR guru.
Speaking to a group of mining executives, Sandman, who also consults for BP, stated, “There is a growing sense that you screw up a lot, and as a net result it becomes harder to get permission to mine.” His solution is not actually change how the industry works, of course, but instead to find an appropriate “persona” for the industry. “Reformed sinner,” he says, “works quite well if you can sell it…’Reformed sinner,’ by the way, is what John Brown of BP has successfully done for his organization. It is arguably what Shell has done with respect to Brent Spar. Those are two huge oil companies that have done a very good job of saying to themselves, ‘Everyone thinks we are bad guys…We can’t just start out announcing we are good guys, so what we have to announce is we have finally realized we were bad guys and we are going to do better.’ … It makes it much easier for critics and the public to buy into the image of the industry as good guys after you have spent awhile in purgatory.”
Here’s some “reformed sinner” performance, punctuated with blame-framing and blame-shifting. It’s rather remarkable that right after Senator Wyden says, “And the company always says the same thing after one of these accidents: ‘We’re gonna toughen up our standards; we’re going to improve management; we’re going to deal with risks,’ and then another such accident takes place,” BP executive Lamar McKay responds with the exact same formula just outlined: “We are changing this company. We’ve put in management systems that are covering the world in a consistent and rigorous way.”
But why depart from the template that has worked so well and so consistently for so long?
If you find such behavior and responses (both by oil executives and the “legal personhood” of a corporation) to be best described as pathological behavior, then you might find useful the documentary The Corporation, which uses some of the key symptoms of psychopathy as outlined by the DSM-IV as an analytical lens for understanding corporate behavior:
- callous disregard for the feelings of other people
- the incapacity to maintain human relationships
- reckless disregard for the safety of others
- deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit)
- the incapacity to experience guilt
- failure to conform to social norms and respect for the law
Oil has brought us some nice things and (to borrow another phrase from Derrick Jensen) all other things being equal, I’d like to have some of the things that are the result of oil.
“But all other things aren’t equal, and I’d rather have a living planet.”