Brands matter, even in the case of Goliath-sized companies, like BP. Why? Because a bad reputation makes stocks plummet, as BP’s own stock has begun to do in response to the Oil Spill debacle. That means lost profits for stock holders, which means fewer people actually wanting to hold your stock, which means eventually you can’t sell the stuff for a decent price. It means less available funding from governments under pressure from vocal constituents who think your brand is now crap. If you depend upon goodwill of the public in any way shape or form, it means your business opportunities may start to vaporize. As one friend told me the other day, in BP’s case, losing business at the pumps isn’t a big factor for their core profit business. That’s because BP acts more like a holding company in most respects, hiring out expertise as needed to meet the production end of big government contracts handled by companies like Haliburton. Even so, some pundits are calculating the days left for BP due to brand loss.
When a company has its “BP moment”, it ultimately loses credibility more in how it responds than in how it actually goofed in the first place. Everyone goofs. Goofing is expected. Sometimes goofs suck big time. But even in the oil industry, goofs are sadly par for course, as in other businesses. The spill itself isn’t spoof-worthy. The goofy response, however, can turn into a negative commercial for the brand.
When a company goofs BP-style, it veers off the path of good common sense and yet somehow manages to think that it can fool the world as to the extent of the damage. Let’s face it. Sometimes, there are going to be losses, perhaps even to the natural infrastructure. Spoiling natural resources is no laughing matter. Trying to avoid losses primarily to the company at such a time just doesn’t make sense. In hindsight, not only is the public going to be furious, but big money sources are going to be scared off. And regardless of what you do later, once you’ve set the precedent, it’s too late to come clean “by degrees”. The public expects the contrition to match the magnitude of the faux pas. Moreover, they expect a reasonable degree of honesty. When the disclosures to the public are not even close to the actual magnitude of a truly epic goof-up, there is a problem that isn’t going to go away any time soon.
So how do other companies with less headaches deal with brand issues, since this is not a model that will fit every industry? Well, I think the lesson here for any and every publicly traded brand is not to stiffen up and act as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened (like how BP is still denying the plume cloud of oil under the surface reported at 6-9 miles in diameter). That just makes people angry, and when people become angry, they often take to the the internet, which means viral social media, nowadays, and that means trouble for any brand, since internet coverage is being seen by more viewers than cable now.
You may as well put a dartboard on your face if you think you can dodge legitimate questions about a scandal of immense magnitude. And the worst part is, while the spill itself may have been avoidable, even if executives wake up to the situation only after it’s gone viral, BP could still have addressed it live, with full acknowledgements in real-time, with their own working super-high-def camera footage which apparently BP had running from day one. The short term brunt of it is going to be harsh, but at least people won’t assume the worst about the brand, and thus the company executives in charge, losing all faith in the future of your stock.
While real-time social media engagement is not perhaps the best response to something this serious, most PR responses can be supported via social media tools. Not to think of the numbers searching for headlines is ludicrous. Paying for search results as your belated response to this realization is not the right approach either. Paid TV spots would make infinitely more sense for getting the message out. Using Fan page and Twitter in a controlled manner for most lesser events would typically be appropriate. Before your moment goes BP, consider what it would take to control the damage after the fact.