NEW ORLEANS — Nearly 20 months after its massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill — and just as Americans focus on New Orleans, host of the college football championship game — BP is pushing a slick nationwide public relations campaign to persuade Americans that the Gulf region has recovered.
BP PLC's rosy picture of the Gulf, complete with sparkling beaches, booming businesses, smiling fishermen and waters bursting with seafood, seems a bit too rosy to many people who live there. Even if the British oil giant's campaign helps promote the Gulf as a place where Americans should have no fear to visit and spend their money, some dismiss it as "BP propaganda."
The PR blitz is part of the company's multibillion dollar response to the Gulf oil spill that started after the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and leading to the release of more than 200 million gallons (760 million liters) of oil. As engineers struggled to cap the out-of-control well, it turned into the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Now, BP is touting evidence that the Gulf's ecology has not been severely damaged by the spill and highlighting improving economic signs.
"I'm glad to report that all beaches and waters are open for everyone to enjoy!" BP representative Iris Cross says in one TV spot to an upbeat soundtrack. "And the economy is showing progress, with many areas on the Gulf Coast having their best tourism season in years."
The campaign, launched just before Christmas, has ramped up for the two-week period around the Sugar Bowl and Bowl Championship Series title game to be played on Monday between Louisiana State University and Alabama.
The company is paying chefs Emeril Lagasse and John Besh to promote Gulf seafood, it's hired two seafood trucks to hand out fish tacos and seafood-filled jambalaya to the hundreds of thousands of tourists and fans pouring into the city for the football games and it's spreading its messages at galas, pre-game parties and vacation giveaways.
But the ad campaign rings hollow to many folks here.
"They talk about areas being all open. There are areas that are still closed," said A.C. Cooper, a shrimp fisherman in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana. He listed some bays and fishing spots that he says the state still has closed due to oil contamination. "It's bogus, it's not the truth."
He added that last fall's shrimp harvest was dismal. "The numbers on our shrimp are way down," he said. "They (BP) make it sound like they're doing a lot, but they're not doing much to help the fishermen out ... I got good fishermen struggling to pay their bills right now."
The head of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, a commercial shrimpers group, called it "BP propaganda."
"When you have a lot of money, you can pretty much get any point across," Clint Guidry complained. "It's kind of like indoctrination."
And businesses on the tourism-dependent Mississippi Gulf Coast say people aren't flocking in.
For example, Bridgette Varone, head of the Gulf Coast chapter of the Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association, said restaurants reported similar revenues in both 2010 and 2011 for the month of June, one of the busiest months.
"I wish we had better news to report," Varone said. "We didn't blow any socks off."
"They might not blatantly lie in the ad, but the true story is far less shiny, and far more troubling," said Aaron Viles of the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group.
He said the spill may have caused a decrease in shrimp harvests and abnormalities in killifish, a minnow. He noted that oil was still marring some marshes and was buried under some beaches. He also said Congress had not done enough to regulate offshore drilling and assure the long-term recovery of the Gulf.
"BP needs to put these facts in their ads," Viles said.
"They should be a little more apologetic and less triumphant," said George Crozier, an oceanographer and former director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama.
However, Crozier said many others were guilty of "spin" just like BP, including scientists and environmentalists who tried, for their own reasons, to push the notion that the oil spill had devastated the Gulf. Crozier said the spill's effects have not been as devastating as many argued they would be.
"The beaches are people-safe, there's no doubt about that," he said. "I thought there was a hysterical reaction to tar balls — unless we started eating them."
Tom Mueller, a BP spokesman, said the ad campaign was highlighting "facts," not "anecdotes."
"When you look at the tourism numbers, heads in beds, revenues, are generally up," he said. "There are some exceptions, but when you step back and look at the coast as a whole, the tourism industry is recovering."
He said BP's commitment to the Gulf was sincere, noting that the company set aside $500 million for independent scientific research into the spill.
"We're honoring our commitment here in helping promote the Gulf Coast and Gulf seafood and doing our best to help the region recover," he said. "As Iris says in the ads, we have more work to do, and BP as a company fully recognizes that there is more work to be done."
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