Can Anne Womack-Kolton Repair the Irreparable? BP’s New PR Push

Anne Womack-Kolton Brunswick

For people around the world, the BP (formerly British Petroleum) brand is today synonymous with dirt and the death of the Gulf of Mexico. In May, BP enlisted the PR giant Brunswick Group as its PR agency of record. This was supposed to help BP handle the onslaught of media attention and to handle BP’s PR strategies. But since May 10 when this was first announced, BP’s public image worsened every day, particularly because no one taught BP boss Tony Hayward how and when to talk.

The BP boss contributed a great deal to the company’s worsening public image, through remarks like:

“The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.””I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

The question what was Brunswick thinking when they let this man talk doesn’t apply, if you ask. We deal daily ourselves with clients who think they are smarter then us and refuse to listen to our advice. I bet Brunswick is in the same boat, but then again, who had the brilliant idea for the following video? If Hayward messed up before, when he was caught off-guard, this video has a script behind, and it comes from an agency.

This was Purple Strategies, a Washington shop led by Alex Castellanos and Steve McMahon, and if you ask “what were they thinking” this time you are 100% entitled to express your outrage, and aim it at BP’s marketing and PR department, and at Brunswick who was supposed to advise against spending millions on such an ad. Brunswick Group is still providing support for communications strategy, media relations, and public affairs for BP.

But this week Anne Womack-Kolton, once press secretary to the former vice-president Dick Cheney, a former APCO Worldwide Vice President (her last day with the company being May 21 this year) and previously director at the Brunswick Group, was hired in house by BP to help bolster its public relations effort in the US, as the company’s head of U.S. media relations. She will be starting this week, and we can say she has a hard job ahead.

First, she has to repair BP’s image in the US, where, according to a CBS survey, 70% of Americans disapprove of the way BP has handled the oil spill. But then, BPs is missing the point: the whole world is watching. It’s not only the US image that needs polishing, it’s a global image.

As it stands now, I give Anne Womack-Kolton a 10% chance of success. BP’s image is irreparable. The public image of this company is compromised forever. The effects of the spill will be felt for years to come, in the Gulf and in many other parts of the Caribbeans. BP talks about reimbursing all legitimate claims, allocating $500 million to watch over the long-term impact on marine life and shoreline. Right now, the watch over only means helplessly witnessing how birds and fish die, chalked in British Petroleum (!).

The problem is that, instead of acting promptly where it was needed, BP spent on PR and advertising. Now news of even more such expenses are not acclaimed: a PR like Anne Kolton doesn’t accept peanuts for pay. Hopefully, she will be able to put some sense in Hayward’s mind, and keep him from public appearances. What the man needs to understand is that he is the one contributing actively to the destruction of the brand.

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