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BP vs. Tylenol – or, how to handle a catastrophe without catastrophic PR

Posted by on May 19, 2010 in best practices, BLOG, BP, oil spill, PR | No Comments

Everyone and their mother has already co-opted the oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico and massaged it to create “teachable” moments that relate to particular agendas. From the go-go-Greenies and their continuing campaign to rid the world of fossil fuels, to the fishermen and restaurants of the Gulf demanding recompense for what is sure to be years’ worth of earnings down the oily drain.

The one party that doesn’t seem to be able to teach anyone anything is British Petroleum. In fact, their attempts at “educating” the public about their problem has only exacerbated the Evil Empire image of Big Oil.

BP CEO Tony Hayward was quoted as saying that this particular 200,000 barrel per day disaster is only going to have a “very very modest impacton the environment.

Really, Tony?? Tell that to the millions of residents along the shores of Florida, Louisiana and Texas that are losing livelihood, tourism dollars, beach real estate, local animal populations – not to mention fearing for the safety of their drinking water and irrigation systems. (Speaking of tourism dollars, the same article noted that Mr. Hayward had just bequeathed $25 Million to Florida “to pay for an advertising campaign for the state’s tourism industry.” Crude is the new Coppertone? Come to the Black Gold Coast? WTF??)

This not even considering that BP at first refused to take responsibility for the spill – first accusing Transocean for badly managing the rig, then Halliburton for creating a faulty spigot cap. As their fingers were wagging, marine life was dying, and the oil spill was pronounced bigger than the Exxon Valdez  disaster, and could finally be spotted from space.

For a company worth trillions of dollars, you’d think they would have bothered to consult with a decent marketing professional before launching such ridiculously blase, literally oily and crude statements on an informed public.

To think that almost 30 years ago, Tylenol had already set the precedent for turning a tragic event into the ultimate lesson in putting customers first.

In September 1982, 7 people died in Chicago after drinking Tylenol Extra Strength capsules that had been tampered and laced with cyanide. At the time, Tylenol Extra Strength was the leading pain reliever brand on the market. The resulting panic led to an almost 20% plunge in the company’s market share. Everyone predicted the death of the brand. Until company chairman James Burke stepped in.

Did James Burke say the lacing of his product caused only a “very very modest impact” on the millions of people who take Tylenol? After all, only 7 people died, and the incidents were confined in one city. Did he put more money toward his advertising to gloss over the accident? Um, no.

Burke understood that a brand is not the sum of its products – it is a trust that’s built between consumers and the company that creates the products. That’s why, instead of minimizing the event with a glib statement, Burke initiated the biggest recall of a product in its day, complied fully with the federal investigation (offering a $100,000 reward for the capture of the perp), and spent $50 million more dollars to research and execute one of the basic features in today’s pharmaceutical products: the tamper-proof seal.

In television interviews (which, sadly, thecommich can’t seem to find in any video archive – but trust her she remembers it from her Ateneo PR101 class), Burke was equally and unprecedentedly honest. Asked why the company was going through such extraordinary measures, he merely said “At this point, we won’t make any money if we don’t.”

Result: a year to the day after the killings, Tylenol had gained back its entire market.

Of course, it’s arguable that a company that produces oil isn’t exactly creating a product – it’s just redistributing it. But that’s no excuse for insulting the public with fuzzy feel good statements that are patently wrong. If you still want to believe that the impact on the Gulf and the people who live there is “modest”, check out the crowd source map that shows personal photos and accounts of jobs and lives lost from the spill.

It may well be that Mr. Hayward is technically correct – that the amount of oil currently in the Gulf, as massive as it is, is only a small drop in the bucket compared to the overall volume of water existing on the planet. But in this post-Tylenol era, consumers expect corporate leaders to take responsibility for their disasters, not utter sound bites that are the equivalent of “your puppy died, but don’t worry we’ll buy you another one.”

Maybe we should ask Tony Hayward to live on the Louisiana coast (on nothing more than his measley $6 million/year salary) while the oil gets cleaned up so he can keep track their very, very modest efforts. Maybe, we should start looking at gas stations that get their product from BP and send them a message by boycotting them. After all, you wouldn’t buy a product that may have been laced with cyanide. Would you buy anything from a company that doesn’t care if you’ve ingested it?