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June 09, 2010

BP, Obama Public Approval Ratings Fall as Gulf Oil Spill Worsens

by Mil Arcega

BP stock continues to suffer, having plunged to a 13-year low, even as the company tries to rescue its damaged reputation amid the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a $50 million public relations campaign.  But most crisis management experts are calling BP's new ad campaign shallow and premature, saying it lacks details about how the company plans to deal with the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  But it is not only BP's image that is suffering.  Even U.S. President Barack Obama is getting poor marks for his handling of the crisis.

"The Gulf spill is a tragedy that never should have happened," said a BP television ad.

In the battle to win hearts and minds, BP's newest ad, which features the company's chief executive officer, appears to be winning few converts.

"I'm Tony Hayward," said another ad. "BP has taken full responsibility for cleaning up the spill in the Gulf."

Despite an expensive, multimedia campaign, public relations experts say BP's image remains that of a big, faceless corporation that says it cares, even if few believe it.

"Right off the bat, they failed to manage the pictures," said Gene Grabowski.

Gene Grabowski is senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, a leading crisis management firm here in Washington.

"We didn't see faces of BP employees working on the ships to control the spill," he said. "We didn't see BP employees in the war room.  We didn't see the CEO, Tony Hayward, with his sleeves rolled up in the war room, walking his team through the process.  As a matter of fact, Tony Hayward didn't take his coat off until probably the sixth or seventh week into the crisis."

The commercials are the first of many BP ads expected to air in the coming weeks.  The oil giant has also purchased Internet search terms on Google and Yahoo to direct inquiries to its website.

President Obama has been critical of BP's public relations campaign.

"And what I don't want to hear is when they're spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising that they're nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf [of Mexico] who are having a hard time," said President Obama.

National and regional public opinion surveys show that the president should be doing more to end the crisis.  According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 54 percent of people in Florida, for example, disapprove of how Mr. Obama is handling the disaster.

Although the president has visited the Gulf coast three times since the spill began, he is getting poor grades from people who spoke to VOA.

"He's been down there to my knowledge twice, but I don't think he's really done that much," said a woman.

Despite lobbying efforts by some organizations to boycott BP gasoline stations, consumers do not appear to be punishing BP.

Those we spoke with say price still determines where they buy their gas.

One woman said that boycotting BP would achieve nothing.

"Should we boycott BP and then expect them to pay for everything, "she asked.

But according to communications analyst Gene Grabowski, public opinion could change if the crisis worsens.

"I think BP has to find a path forward, show us what that path is, stop apologizing - stop blaming and start doing," he said.

Despite BP's efforts to contain the leak, experts say oil likely will spew into the Gulf of Mexico for at least two more months - until relief wells can be drilled.  Meanwhile, oil residue continues to spread along the U.S. coastline, threatening livelihoods and sensitive wildlife in the areas.