BP Print Ads Promise to 'Make This Right'

Message, However, Is Undercut by Ongoing Spill

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As BP's efforts to end the 40-day-old oil spill still show no signs of success and the Obama administration announced a criminal and civil investigation into the spill, the company is promising it "will get it done" and "make this right" via print advertising.

Since late May the company has been running full-page ads on a consistent basis in major daily news publications such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Washington Post. It has also been running local ads around the Gulf states with information on the clean-up effort and how to contact BP, a spokesman for the oil giant said. The spokesman wasn't sure how long the print campaign would continue but said the company's communications plans were still "evolving." WPP's Ogilvy, BP's creative lead agency, which did not create the print ads, referred calls to the company.*

BP ad
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BP ad in The New York Times
The ad in today's Times contains a color photo of workers on a relief boat laying booms in the water. The tagline reads: "We will get it done. We will make this right." The ad goes on to say that "BP will continue to take full responsibility for cleaning up the spill" and explains the efforts it has initiated to do so, including organizing "the largest environmental response in this country's history. More than 3 million feet of boom, 30 planes and more than 1,300 boats are working to protect the shoreline." And now conceding that the oil will in fact come ashore, the ad reads: "When oil reaches the shore, thousands of people are ready to clean it up."

The Journal ad is a black and white photo of workers laying a boom on shore over the tagline, "We will make this right."

Enormous image crisis
As many predicted it would, this has become an enormous image crisis and a seemingly unwinnable battle for BP. Aside from the administration's investigation and the failed attempts at plugging the leak, there have been reports that BP has restricted access to journalists in certain areas, while some news outlets have commandeered their own boats and ventured out into the oil slick, giving readers and viewers closeer images of the spill and the damage it's causing.

The company's attempts at damage control aren't stopping with the print campaign. BP, which is already working with communications firm Brunswick, just yesterday named Anne Womack-Kolton, former spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney and head of public affairs at the Department of Energy under former President George W. Bush, as head of U.S. media relations.

Chris Gidez, head of U.S. crisis practice at WPP's Hill & Knowlton and former head of corporate PR at Texaco and Chevron, said until it plugs that hole, it doesn't matter what the company says or who says it.

"At the end of the day, the best PR and advertising in the world can not compete with that live video stream of that oil coming out of the bottom of the sea," Mr. Gidez said. "PR, advertising, community affairs, social media and communications is not going to solve the problem."

Mr. Gidez said the language it uses in the ads is "bold and strong" and that BP has raised the bar for themselves and any other company in terms of throwing the weight of communications resources at a crisis. "Nothing has ever been done on this scale," he said, adding that "you can't fault them for their efforts to try and communicate to everybody and to be as connected to everyone as they have been."

'Ringing hollow'
Carreen Winters, exec VP-corporate communications at Interpublic Group of Cos.' MWW, said the timing of the ads is irrelevant because all of the work and money BP spent aggressively rebranding itself and building its reputation as a leader in its industry has now been undone. "It's less about the timing of advertising, and more about the fact that BP's statements about it accepting responsibility are ringing hollow," Ms. Winters said.

But Ms. Winters said BP will need to spend "astronomical sums" not only on making this right with affected people in the Gulf Coast but on advertising and communicating through other channels. She said the language of the ad is what the public has wanted to hear since the leak started. "At this point, they will only get traction with that message if we see it in action," Ms. Winters said. "The words are the right ones, but it's up to BP to give them meaning."

Both Mr. Gidez and Ms. Winters believe BP is going to have a hard time convincing people of anything.

"I'm not sure people believe they are sorry yet given all the foot-in-mouth moments thus far," Ms. Winters said. "When the [BP] CEO Tony Hayward goes on television and says it's not BP's spill, that's not a message of contrition. ... He was quoted as saying he 'just wanted his life back' only to apologize several hours later. It's those missteps that undermine all the other hard work they are engaged in to fix the situation."

Mr. Gidez said BP can't begin to think about rebuilding its reputation until it stops the oil leak.

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Editor's Note: A change from an earlier version of this story clarifies Ogilvy's involvement with BP's print effort.

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