Back in 2006, BP got in trouble after the disclosure that its Prudhoe Bay pipeline was corroded and leaking for many years because nobody was inspecting it.
After BP was forced to shut down the pipeline for repairs, a guy who wrote BP's "Beyond Petroleum" ads pronounced his disillusionment with the ads in a New York Times article. The author of the piece, John Kenney, said "I guess, looking at it now, 'Beyond Petroleum' is just advertising. It's become mere marketing -- perhaps it always was -- instead of a genuine attempt to engage the public in the debate or a corporate rallying cry to change the paradigm. Maybe I'm naïve."
What must he think now? Back in those days, BP was "at one of the lowest points in its history; badly run, accident-prone and accused in the aftermath of a deadly explosion at its Texas City refinery of putting profits before safety," according to the Wall Street Journal. The new regime, the Journal added, has "turned BP around, boosting production, cutting costs and significantly reducing on-the-job injuries." Last month, the new CEO was observing an irreversible "change of culture."
And now the company is facing one of the most disastrous environmental breaches ever, right up there with the Exxon Valdez oil spill two decades ago.
The new CEO apparently changed everything but the advertising. The problem is not that BP's ads didn't work, as John Kenney lamented, but they worked too well. Sure, the whole thing was "just advertising" that BP had lofty environmental ambitions, but it was advertising that, for better or for worse, BP was judged by. Yes, it was concocted to cut through the "corporate speak" of big oil companies, but BP itself bought into it a little too enthusiastically. "Beyond reality" might be a more appropriate slogan.
By talking about all those other sources of energy it's developing, BP gives the impression that the oil business is no longer its first priority. As I said in 2006, "I wish BP still believed in the oil business ... But the company was way out there, beyond petroleum, and I guess the oil business just wasn't cutting-edge enough to warrant its attention."
Was BP too busy celebrating the U.S. Interior Department's endorsement of the wind farms off the Cape Cod coast that it didn't keep an eye on its leased oil rig on the Gulf of Mexico? That's the kind of criticism its advertising has opened itself up to.
Look what happened the last time. Writing two days before Mr. Kenney's article, The Times' Joe Nocera said he was walking through an airport when he spotted a BP poster.
"You know the kind I'm talking about. The letters BP in lower case type -- making them look somehow warmer and fuzzier. Like most BP ads, indeed like all BP marketing, it spoke of the company's commitment to the environment.
"And here's what I thought when I saw it: 'Oh, yeah, right.'"
Mr. Nocera said if BP hadn't been so "holier than thou" in its marketing during the last few years, "I doubt that it would be getting hammered right now -- at least to this extent."
"And if there's one iron-clad rule about marketing, it is that you had better be practicing internally what you are preaching to the world."
Another ironclad rule also comes into play here: After every disaster, the response level (or lack thereof) gets factored into the next one. So because both local, state and federal government reaction to Hurricane Katrina were universally viewed as woefully inadequate, both BP and the federal government's reaction to the drilling rig fire and sinking are being measured by the same yardstick.
And even though the new BP CEO has "dialed back on the Beyond Petroleum mantra," as the Journal put it, the company must still live up to the highest levels of environmental striving it has created for itself.