BP's Latest PR Push: Don't Take Advantage Of Our Settlement Agreement

Company Gets More Aggressive in Effort to Stave Off Bogus Claims

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BP has once again taken to the nation's newspapers to make the case that it's being taken advantage of by unscrupulous lawyers and people who were never financially hurt by the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company has spent more than $14 billion on cleanup and response and $11 billion on claims since its 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but in a full-page ad that ran this week in The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, it's declaring "This isn't the settlement we agreed to." The ad states:

Last year, we signed a settlement agreement to ensure that people who suffered losses from the accident would keep being paid. When we negotiated that agreement, we sat down in good faith with the goal of helping as many deserving people as possible. And when we signed it that's what we thought the agreement would do. Unfortunately, it's now being applied in a way that ignores the agreement's plain language, with enormous payments going to businesses that did not suffer any losses.

There is some evidence to back up some of the company's claims. A report from Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this summer recounted a number of cases of lawyers and clients who had little if any connection to the spill being awarded millions from the settlement fund. And last month, BP CEO Bob Dudley told CNBC that plaintiff's lawyers were the "biggest beneficiaries" of the agreement.

Despite its complaints, a federal judge this month ordered the company to pay "more than $130 million to the court-supervised administrator of its multibillion-dollar settlement with Gulf Coast businesses and residents." BP claimed that the administrator, Patrick Juneau, hadn't provided adequate documentation for the money being requested.

Geoff Morrell, VP and head of U.S. communications for BP, told Ad Age: "Today we are working to ensure that our willingness to do the right thing is not taken advantage of and distorted to provide windfalls to undeserving businesses, including law firms. ... We owe it to our shareholders and employees to do so, and we believe everyone should know that the unmooring of this settlement from the express terms of the agreement changes the calculus other businesses will consider when deciding whether to settle or litigate."

Getting out in front
But is playing the victim card a smart move for the oil giant behind the accident that so badly damaged an ecosystem and a regional economy?

It's a smart offensive move that gets them in front of influencers, said Burson-Marsteller public affairs lead Steve Lombardo, who praised the ad. The worst-case scenario that they're trying to avoid, he said, is congressional investigations due to perceived misconduct.

"They sensed that they're potentially vulnerable," he added. "It's smart of BP to act as their own truth squad here and get out in front of an issue and tell the public what's going on. [The campaign] is geared toward opinion and thought leaders across the country and in D.C. who might influence policy makers and set the record straight in their minds. It's a good strategy."

And it's not your everyday public-affairs strategy, according to Mr. Lombardo. "They really went out of their way to be proactive on this and tell people what's going on. That's a bit unusual, I think."

But there's a danger in playing the victim and reviving images of oil-smothered animals and emotionally wrecked Gulf Coast fishermen -- especially as the company fights back against other elements of the case in court.

Not worth the risk?
Lane Bailey, founder and CEO of D.C.-based public-affairs shop Advocom Group, said the risk isn't worth the reward, especially since the company has made progress repairing its image.

It might look like they're "trying to recast this deal or have intent to do that," he said. "My instinct is that the ads themselves are a step too far. This is a very targeted ad campaign aimed at a public-affairs audience. It's like using a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel to make point about individual cases."

Reputation aside, there's also a risk in unleashing the beast in the well-funded opposition -- trial lawyers. "There's a lot of money on the other side of this, so why open up a public campaign fight between two warring factions," said Mr. Bailey. "They're powerful and a formidable force here in Washington around hearings and around how members think and vote."

BP works with WPP's Ogilvy on public affairs, Interpublic Group of Cos' GolinHarris on consumer PR, WPP's Mindshare on media buying and Purple Strategies on advertising. "None of those firms is a part of these efforts.

This is not a consultant-driven enterprise," Mr. Morrell told Ad Age. However, he said that Purple produced the ads and Mindshare bought the time and space, "but that's it."

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