Image: Greenpeace activists mock BP on the shore of South Pass, La.
Daniel Beltra  /  AFP - Getty Images
Greenpeace activists mocked BP’s slogan on the shores of South Pass, La., on Monday. The company is still using the slogan.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/19/2010 9:21:25 AM ET 2010-05-19T13:21:25

BP and Toyota have a lot in common — and that’s probably not something they’re very happy about.

Both are huge companies based abroad that have spent decades working to earn the respect of U.S. consumers, working aggressively in recent years to establish “green” pedigrees despite the inherently non-ecofriendly nature of their industries.

And then both companies were hit with deadly disasters that brought the ire and distrust of everyday Americans and powerful lawmakers, and that now threaten to ruin their reputations.

“There is no way to go through something like what these companies are going through and look good in the short term,” said Eric Dezenhall, head of the crisis management firm Dezenhall Resources.

Still, some public relations experts say BP and Toyota have erred by not acting quickly enough to offer up information, apologize to the public and explain how they were going to move aggressively to fix their problems.

“I always say to a client, 'Fess up before you’re forced to, because as soon as you’re forced to, it’s all over,'” said Richard Laermer, founder of RLM PR.

BP may have been hampered in the early days by a lack of information about the impact of the April 20 rig explosion that caused millions of gallons of oil to begin spewing into the Gulf.

But Michael Fineman, president of Fineman PR, said company executives could have shown more empathy for the families of the 11 workers who died in the explosion, as well as the fishermen and others who have seen their livelihoods devastated by the spill.

“It hasn’t seemed to me to be an overwhelming concern to them,” Fineman said.

BP has said that it has already begun making payments to people who have suffered damages, and it has pledged $70 million toward tourism promotion for four states potentially affected by the oil spill. The company also has a comprehensive website with the latest information on the disaster.

Still, the company has been dogged by problems such as a reported effort to get fishermen who agreed to help with cleanup efforts to sign a waiver releasing the company from liability in exchange for $5,000 payments.

“That was an early misstep," BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward told National Public Radio.

Toyota seen as slow to respond
In Toyota’s case, it took a while for information to trickle out about the extent of the potentially deadly defects affecting popular Toyota vehicles, even after a well-documented crash killed a California state trooper and three family members.

“If you look at what they did it was clear that they didn’t really understand the magnitude of the issue and the potential PR risk,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University.

The company did eventually get a comprehensive Web site up and running, and dealers pledged to work extended hours to get recalled vehicles repaired.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda also came under considerable fire for not quickly offering his own explanation and apology. Even when he offered his “sincerest condolences” at a congressional hearing in February, some were unmoved.

“Where is the remorse?” Rep. Marcy Kaptur asked at the hearing. 

'It wasn't our accident'
Many credit Hayward, BP's chief executive, with speaking out early in the disaster. But he also has been criticized for appearing to try to shift blame for the accident to other companies involved, including rig maker Transocean.

“It wasn't our accident, but we are absolutely responsible for the oil, for cleaning it up, and that's what we intend to do," Hayward told NBC's "TODAY" show earlier this month.

In the same interview, Hayward also repeatedly pointed to mechanical failures that caused the accident.

"What has failed here is the ultimate safety device on a drilling rig," he said. "There are many barriers of protection that you have to go to before you get to this. It isn't designed to not fail."

Fineman said such statements, including Hayward's awkward double-negative, come across as undignified.

“These companies should not be engaging in name-calling and finger-pointing and blame,” he said. “It really just makes the original sin appear worse.”

Still, PR experts say that Hayward has done the right thing by speaking early and often about the accident.

“Even with the misspeaking, it did appear that he was on the job. He was haggard, he was not removed from this situation,” Fineman said.

Nevertheless, Hayward’s statements also have served to illuminate BP's larger public relations problem — the perception that the company was not prepared to handle the situation.

“BP is beset by so many problems at this point that the public relations here is not really about the company’s communications,” Fineman said. “This company has such a huge responsibility, and they are appearing, at this point, incompetent and bumbling and unworthy.”

BP’s reputation problems may be magnified by the fact that the disaster comes on the heels of an aggressive campaign to brand the company as moving “beyond petroleum” to more eco-friendly energy sources.

The fact that the company has continued to use that tagline in the face of an oil rig disaster “looks a little smarmy,” Laermer said.

Hard to stay ahead
While both companies have made mistakes, experts say that in today’s fast-moving news environment, when cable and Internet outlets publicize each incremental development instantaneously, it can be a near-impossible challenge for a company to respond quickly or aggressively enough. And when facing disasters such as these, Dezenhall said there is only so much a company can do.

“I don’t think that there is a telltale crisis management error in either of these cases,” Dezenhall said. “I don’t think that there would have been one brilliant stroke.”

In the case of BP, Dezenhall notes, there also is only so much an oil company can do to make itself likable. If he were counseling the company today, he said he would ask, “Is your goal to get people to feel good about you or to get back to business?”

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