When a company even half the size of British Petroleum has a big problem how they respond to the problem can go a long way toward determining its future. In 1982 Johnson and Johnson had a major problem with Tylenol and ended up pulling all Tylenol products off the shelves. It was a massive undertaking but today is lauded as the poster child on how a major business ought to handle a disaster. The handling of the 2010 Tylenol recall has not gone nearly as well.
1984 Union Carbide had a tragic and well documented industrial gas leak disaster at its plant in Bhopal, India. Now owned by Dow Chemical, Union Carbide continues to deny allegations against it on its website dedicated to the tragedy claiming it was an accident as a result of sabotage AND it had adequate safety systems in place at the time. But the Union Carbide Brand – strong at the time was never the same in large part due to the mishandling of a terrible tragedy.
Most people are aware that Exxon had its own disaster in Prince William Sound Alaska with the grounding of the Valdez in 1989 and the subsequent massive oil spill. It was one of the largest oil spills ever and perhaps one of the most devastating ones in terms of its environmental impact. Years and years of cleanup and millions of dollars were spent by Exxon and the company was subject to punitive damages in excess of $ 5 billion which was reduced to $ 2.5 billion upon Exxon’s appeal. At the time there were those that speculated that Exxon might even be taken over by another oil company or put out of business altogether. We all know how that worked out.
BP is the behind the worst corporation caused environmental disaster in history. It is a tragedy unfolding seemingly in slow motion with constant video of oil continuing to spew into the Gulf of Mexico from the broken standpipe. The advance of the leaking oil is charted on a daily, if not hourly basis as residents of the Gulf Coast brace for an impact that will last for a generation or more. There is no spin, angle or message of any kind that can help bring BP any kind of public sentiment.
BP is the fourth largest company in the world and now the one Americans have come to hate. What can Americans do? Boycott BP gas stations? That will have little or no impact since BP owns few stations on their own, and all that will do is penalize the poor guy who is operating a station that happens to have a BP logo outside. What did the BP gas station owner do to deserve everyone’s rage and vitriol?
There are many that are surmising this might be the end of BP, but I’m not one of them. Yes there were some egregious errors made by BP and its subcontractors – shortcuts and the ignoring of important and now seemingly obvious safeguards. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg noted in defense of BP CEO Mike Hayward he ‘didn’t’ exactly blow up the well.’ And while that’s true, by not attending to the details he may have blown up the company.
The best thing BP can do now is continue to do everything it can to cap the Deepwater Horizon well, clean up the mess as quickly and efficiently as possible, help the suffering residents of the Gulf Coast and continually say they are sorry – and mean it. This is not a time for marketing – this is a time for action.