NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If ever there was a PR agency tasked with putting lipstick on the metaphorical pig, it's Brunswick. The 23-year-old independent agency that started in London is the lead communications shop working with BP to try to manage the messaging around the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, now in its sixth week and dubbed the worst environmental crisis in the history of the country.
But given that BP's crisis-communications strategy so far is disastrous, industry insiders wonder whether Brunswick -- known largely for financial PR and not considered the go-to shop for a catastrophe of this magnitude -- is the right firm for the job. Or, frankly, if anyone can do it.
The most recent communications efforts from BP rolled out last week in the form of print ads promising to "make this right" and a one-minute spot featuring an apology from CEO Tony Hayward that no one seems anxious to take credit for. BP's lead creative agency Ogilvy & Mather was not responsible for the print ads (the agency referred all calls to the client) and a CNN report named political advertising firm Purple Strategies as the creative shop responsible. Someone who answered the phone at Purple Strategies said only, "Thanks for the inquiry, but we're not confirming or denying any information."
While the story is leading most major newscasts and Brunswick's client has been painted as the ultimate villain, it's a scene not all that unfamiliar to Michele Davis, a partner at Brunswick Group and agency lead on the BP crisis. Before joining the agency Ms. Davis worked at the Department of the Treasury during the financial crisis as a senior adviser to Secretary Hank Paulson, and before that she worked in the White House on foreign policy during the latter stages of the Iraq war.
Ms. Davis, who is based in Brunswick's Washington office, spoke to Ad Age from Houston, BP's center of operations, last Friday. Not surprisingly, Ms. Davis's answers to questions like "How many people do you have on the ground in Houston?" and, "How hard is it to get a client in a situation like this to take your advice?" were "I'm not going to get into that" and "No comment," respectively.
She did say that the agency was working closely with BP executives, including Mr. Hayward, providing "high-level strategic advice and communications support." She said the agency is also working with Anne Womack-Kolton, a former spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney who BP recently named head of U.S. media relations. She and Ms. Davis worked together in the White House.
The relationship between BP and Brunswick started in London and dates back many years. The agency, already with a strong foothold in London and Brussels, hired former Wall Street Journal Finance Editor Steven Lipin in 2001 to run the New York office, which was the start of the firm establishing a stronger presence in the U.S. All of the industry executives and competitors of Brunswick that Ad Age spoke to, who all asked not to be identified, praised the shop for its work in the mergers-and-acquisitions, financial-communications, litigation, CEO-positioning and corporate-communications sectors. But a number of them questioned the decision to have the agency's Washington office lead the crisis based on its size.
An executive at one of Brunswick's competitors said the agency is an A-plus U.K. firm and a very good New York firm but pretty small in Washington. "My guess is they are doing the best they can," said one of Brunswick's competitors. "If this were an M&A situation in the U.S., they'd be one of the first shops you'd look to hire. But if someone said there is a big Washington problem, who are you going to hire? Brunswick probably wouldn't be one of your first 10 names."
Toby Odone, a spokesman at BP, said the company was relying on Brunswick because the agency has been very "useful" for it over the past few years. "It seemed logical that we should continue with them during this crisis," Mr. Odone said.
Brunswick said the BP work is a firm-wide effort with partners from Brunswick's London, New York and San Francisco offices taking part. Brunswick's Ms. Davis said she wouldn't discuss the size of her team but said "this is a global firm."
According to its website, Brunswick has nearly 80 senior partners and a staff of more than 470 in 16 cities including New York, London, Abu Dhabi, Berlin, Stockholm, Beijing, Vienna and San Francisco. Its service offerings range from debt and restructuring to IPO and media relations, litigation and crisis.
Su-Lin Nichols, a director in Brunswick's Washington office, added: "Each of the partners and directors in the Washington office have experience working on crisis communications and major national and international issues." Brunswick cited its crisis communications credentials as including Owens Corning's asbestos and bankruptcy issues, Gap's child-labor issue and Gillette's litigation issues.
While BP's PR fiasco might seem like the sort of thankless job most would stay away from, there is no shortage of industry people who would jump at the chance -- even at this late stage in the game, when consumers are livid at BP, angry at the Federal response and so sick of "spin" that @BPGlobalPR, a satirical Twitter feed, now has over 120,000 followers.
In an online poll conducted by Ad Age on June 4, 45% of the more than 300 respondents said they would rise to the challenge; 43% said no, citing ethical reasons; and 12% said it would depend on the money involved.
In a separate interview, Gene Grabowski, senior VP and chairman of crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications, said it would probably be the greatest challenge of a career. "I would not have hesitated early on," he said. "At this point we would have to do a lot more advanced work and take more variables under consideration, but we would take them on."
Michael Kempner, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' PR shop MWW Group, said he would also take on the BP assignment, but only if certain conditions were met. "I might consider it only on the condition that they would commit to total transparency and be an agent for change," Mr. Kempner said. "I would also potentially work with them to provide true solutions to the residents of the Gulf Coast and major funding to repair the damage caused to lives, the environment and the economy. I would not work with them to cover up, 'spin' or justify their past and current behavior."