If it means saying “we don’t know,” so be it

Those of us in the business of  watching and partnering with media and working with companies and organizations to develop their messages are utterly frustrated with BP’s communications since the spill on April.  BP has been handed umpteen opportunities to make amends for last week’s or yesterday's gaffes, and the company’s management team continues to manage the message with a) NO message (well, I could give you their message but you wouldn’t be satisfied; b) silence until they’re damned ready to respond with a non-message; and c) lack of interesting, tangible data that would help both the media and the public understand the inner workings of a “complex” process like deepwater drilling, let alone recovery management. I was initially put off by the goofy, irate and sweaty team of Matalin and Carville earlier in the week, since they are oddly, and a little confusingly, bridging roles as paid reporters and outraged Louisiana residents.  Their Eddie Chiles-esque “We’re not going to take it anymore,” is actually resonating with me now, as  needed and appropriate, given the ennui coming from Washington. I can’t certainly write this better, so I defer to Brett Norman's May 28th article in the Columbia Journalism Review: "Covering the Oil Spill, Reporters Must Ensure that What's Out of Sight Isn't Out of Mind."  A snippet from his post:

"This afternoon, it appears that the optimism, if not the substance, of what was conveyed may have been warranted. BP now says that it has suppressed the flow of oil in the Gulf by supplementing the mud with an injection of bulky items, termed the “junk shot,” and will maintain the pressure and attempt to cap the well with cement. But the failure yesterday to alert the public as the process unfolded is good evidence that BP is ignoring the first lesson in disaster management PR: transparency. It also serves as a troubling reminder that so much of what is happening with the spill, almost a mile underwater, is beyond the scrutiny of truly independent oversight. As late as Thursday afternoon, Coast Guard Admiral and National Incident Commander Thad Allen, who has seemed like a reliably straight shooting source of information thus far, said in his typically jargon-heavy language that BP was continuing to pump mud into the well and that hydrocarbons had stopped leaking into the Gulf. Neither of those claims was true at the time, if today’s media reports are accurate.

The disturbing and intentional miscommunication should sharpen journalists’ skepticism about reports on things they can’t see with their own eyes. Unfortunately, in the case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that category contains much of what is actually going on.”

Here’s the deal:  Much of my family makes their living in the oil and gas business.  I have made my living working for companies in the oil and gas business.  My firm has represented a number of companies in the oil and gas business.  Our collective experience, which includes working with in-house and outside counsel, has made us more conscious of the need to provide information to public stakeholders as promptly as possible and to be as honest and straightforward as information available allows you to be.  And if that means saying, “we don’t know,” so be it.  The problem BP faces now is that the credibility gap created by saying so little for so long has diminished the company’s public trust allowance for “I don’t knows.”  By now, we deem, they should know more.  Perhaps we would have been on their side, if we’d been made part of the problem-solving process from the beginning.

What do you think?  If BP had been forthcoming from the beginning, would your opinion about the company be more positive at this junction?

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