Brunswick and BP: PR and Responsibility

Scathing and probing headlines are continuing to castrate and castigate BP’s hapless crisis PR endeavours, further to my blog of the other day. Disapproving chatter clutters the web and denunciatory journalists, bloggers and commentators continue to feed on the corporate leviathan’s swift downward trajectory.

The latest casualty in the ongoing debate about the oil spill fiasco is the global PR financial shop Brunswick. Alan Parker’s stately independent whale has made a habit of maintaining the lowest of profiles. Accomplished, circumspect and effective, Brunswick are respected in the financial orbit for their tactful and discreet diplomacy. The company have successfully produced a number of Richelieu figures, many of whom have gone on to the most powerful corporate multinationals.

The diabolical fix their client is in has started to spatter even their enviable brand reputation with the sticky, oily residue of failure. Brunswick now face a very public, very uncomfortable test. There was a time when the solemn and sober Alan Parker would, like Zelig, be visible at every corporate disaster; an undertaker with a reassuring demeanour. But no more. Crisis comms have not been one of Brunswick’s most effective tools of late.

The diminishment of their success has been partly due to the company’s global expansion. The realisation of this ambition has resulted in lesser mortals stumbling into key roles. Can the corporate comms world really produce enough senior suits? It’s not simply a case if poaching more senior journalists to the fountainhead. The blinding, gut-wrenching speed of the new 24/7 news-driven and web-obsessed commentariat produces menacing ultimatums at terrifying speed and, unfortunately, there isn’t a PR production line to craft wily responders – they require time to be perfected.

The onslaught of the digital age has created sustenance for forensic media on and off line, unimpeded and free, driven even, to explore and dissect all aspects of the crisis. And now, for the first time, Brunswick are becoming the story. It’s an uncomfortable dilemma at the best of times and anathema to the likes of Brunswick, as it interferes with their usually mythic calm. And it really doesn’t help that a small fortune was paid to Google to bump BP to the top of the list in searches, or that they sent ‘journalists’ in to get positive stories from people likely to be affected by the spill that they could then put on the BP website.

Greater scrutiny of nasty PR tactics is an absolute imperative, now. Perhaps the attention being lavished on Brunswick might signal a change. Certainly, it’s a move in the right direction to open up a critique on some of the better known ambiguous tactics PR firms employ. Expedient shops have, thus far, been able to escape scrutiny. But less ethical work must be analysed – why should there be anywhere to hide?

Brunswick’s efforts to spin BP were doomed weeks ago, I think. A fatal combination of images of oil-stained pelicans struggling to flap their wings and a thoroughly ineffectual chief executive made it a job too big for even the very best. PR alone cannot salvage a crisis of this size, I’d say, and they were foolish to try. Seasoned campaigners know that deft semantics in a crisis can undo even the most brilliant strategic objective.

The critical clamour surrounding Brunswick will probably not cause them serious long-term damage, but it does send a signal to the larger PR firms that, despite unwillingness to comment or disclose their client list, we are entering an age were translucency will be a necessity – and that it is better PR to accept this than to be dragged kicking and screaming to it at the expense of all dignity and clients.