BP’s Olympic-sized tragedy

BP and its PR team have been heavily castigated from all sides for their handling of the Gulf oil spill, and many industry professionals have been scratching their heads over the past few weeks, wondering why Tony Hayward wasn’t better prepared and media trained for what he had to handle.

That was brought home once again this morning by a fascinating interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, with Dr Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre. First of all, he surprised Evan Davis, the presenter – and the rest of us – by pointing out that this wasn’t by a long chalk America’s worst oil pollution disaster, as it has been routinely described – apparently there was a much worse one in California back in 1910. Secondly, with news that three-quarters of the leaked oil has now evaporated or been otherwise eliminated, he compared the 5 million barrels that are known to have leaked as the equivalent of a single gram, or an eye-dropper full, in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. This ‘Olympic-sized swimming pool’ comparison has been a favourite of accident-prone chemical companies for years, because it is a powerful visual analogy that puts the thing in a clear perspective for the average person, in a way figures rarely can. And hey, it works!

Tony Hayward was rightly criticised at the time for calling the leak a ‘drop in the ocean’ (or similar) because when TV viewers could see pictures of oil-covered birds and miles of slick, it made him look as if he was making light of the problem. But why wasn’t his PR team – or whichever heavy-hitters the company could pull in at short notice – busily briefing outside experts with a series of pieces of perspective, with powerful ready-made soundbites such as this? Coming from objective external sources over the airwaves, the point could have been as effective as it was this morning. For Tony Hayward, and possibly BP, it’s all too late.

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