Beyond Deepwater Horizon: How BP has stopped saying sorry and is moving forward

March 6, 2020

Critical Takeaways

  • BP made a major announcement in February 2020 to become net carbon-neutral by 2050. This announcement signified the end of their somewhat unsuccessful efforts to rebuild their reputation after the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.
  • There is a time where every firm hit by a crisis will have to stop saying sorry but knowing when to do this is hard.
  • Kith’s 4As Framework helps communicators guide their leadership through this difficult decision and I’ve applied this framework to BP in this article as an illustration. 

I recently noticed a headline concerning BP which jumped out at me but probably passed most people by. In February (2020), BP announced that they are going to become a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050 and their statement articulated a plan for a carbon-free future moving forward.

But that’s not what caught my attention. 

Rather, what jumped out at me was that this announcement signaled the end to their reputation advertising in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident of April 2010. Instead, the energy giant is moving those resources and budget over to work on the net-zero initiative. What’s interesting is that I wasn’t the only one to spot this change: many analysts also took note with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. 

For almost ten years, BP’s advertising and communications have been primarily focussed on its recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast and what it’s done in the communities affected. However, despite the time and effort spent on these attempts to rebuild its reputation, many analysts that follow BP believe that the advertising thus far has been highly ineffective

These analysts’ view was also reflected in the company’s reputation rankings in polls. For example, BP’s reputation was assessed as ‘poor’ in four out of five years in the Harris Reputation Quotient poll hovering between 88th – 98th of 100 companies assessed between 2015 – 2019.  Most damaging was the characterization that this was nothing more than ‘greenwashing’ which only increased people’s distrust of the company. So the general consensus from analysts was that this is a positive change, and I tend to agree. 

At some point, you have to stop saying sorry and turn off ineffective communications initiatives.

This strategy of changing the conversation from apology and remediation to something else is fascinating to me. It’s something that I believe every communicator should think about because this question of how long organizations impacted by a crisis continue to try to repair their reputation directly relates to reputation resilience. 

So what would you do if you were in this situation? How would you advise and steer your leadership team towards the right decision? How did BP make this decision?

Although we don’t have any direct insight into BP, I’m going to map out what their decision-making might have looked like using our ‘four As’ framework for reputation excellence. (There’s also a longer piece on rebuilding your reputation here.)

The first stage is awareness. For BP, instead of awareness of the fallout from Deepwater Horizon – something which they are very aware of – this would be an awareness that the attempts to improve their reputation simply weren’t working. They might not know the specifics, but they would be aware of people’s reaction (or non-reaction) to their attempts to rebuild their reputation.

Next would come their assessment. In this case, they could use the information they gathered in the awareness stage as the basis for an analysis of their current situation and to identify potential paths forward. Moreover, some of this work had already been done for them: the aforementioned analysts were warning that their reputation management campaigns were ineffective. So they would know that the market was ready for this, but they must also have done some public opinion research in Louisiana and the other Gulf states. Asking “what do you expect from us?” of the impacted communities, as well as other key stakeholders and opinion leaders, will have helped BP plan its next steps. 

Once they had made their decision, they needed to establish their authority. BP has already made some meaningful structural changes and appointed a leader and committed significant resources to the 2050 initiative. So they’re definitely getting serious about it which helps build their authority and shows commitment.

Finally, they have to move to action. This is the crucial part of the process: just announcing a new initiative along with some corporate reshuffling won’t shift the needle reputation-wise. The action stage is where BP is now so the pressure will be on for them to start to deliver on their promise. 

And there will be a lot of pressure. 

Even for a company with BP’s resources and technical expertise, becoming carbon net-zero in 30 years is a tall order, so there are significant operational challenges in meeting this goal. Then the company also has to consider the mechanisms they employ to meet the net-zero target. The public probably won’t take kindly to the company continuing with emissions-heavy oil production as usual but with more tree planting on the side.

Nevertheless, BP has taken some bold steps with this announcement. They are effectively saying that their response to Deepwater Horizon is over, they are done saying sorry, and they are moving on to something bigger. They have followed the first three stages of our framework for reputation excellence – awareness, assessment, and authority – and are now poised to execute on the action stage. So let’s all keep our eyes on BP and how they tackle their very bold 2050 initiative. 

But let’s also monitor the impact that it has on Louisiana and the Gulf states. These are familiar areas to Kith, so we’ll be curious how stakeholders on the ground might greet this decision.

I look forward to reporting back.


Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.