The Truth Will Set You Free (from PR Disasters)

By: Cody Church

Pardon the anecdotal evidence, there won’t be much of it in this blog, but when I told my family that I planned to major in public relations their first reaction was, “Well, you’ve always been a good liar.” But the fact is, with research readily available on the Internet, PR professionals who “spin the truth” are easily debunked by media outlets; this only encourages public distrust – the exact opposite of what PR is intended to accomplish. I hope to prove that honesty is the ideal way to regain public trust after an incident, and conversely, that lying makes the issue far worse.

July 15, 2010 – news breaks that a pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico has been capped after gushing oil into the water for 83 days. When Deepwater Horizon, a rig operated by BP, exploded and sank, 210 million gallons of oil were released into the Gulf while the pipeline remained damaged. As of today, BP has been required to pay $42.2 billion to restore the Gulf, with $2.5 billion in damages to coastal fisheries, a major element of the Gulf Coast economy. In late June of 2010, a Gallup poll found that only 16 percent of Americans approved of BP’s handling of the spill. Without a doubt, BP had both an environmental and PR disaster in their hands.

BP laid low until Christmas 2011 when they unleashed a massive national PR blitz, touting the success of their restoration initiatives along the Gulf Coast. Many locals called the campaign “BP propaganda,” and one energy activist pointed out that the research done by BP was never made public and was conducted by scientists who were protected by confidentiality agreements. Three years after receiving an approval rating comparable to Sadam Hussein’s, BP’s stock is still down; thus, proving that their PR efforts have largely failed. A few final efforts by the company’s PR team are underway now in the op-ed sections of major magazines and newspapers – notably an article posted in Politico by Geoff Morrell, senior vice president of U.S. communications and external affairs for BP, titled “No, BP Didn’t Ruin The Gulf.” Another op-ed offered a different opinion on the aftermath, but the question I ask is this – why is BP trying to “spin the truth” when their public relations campaign would have been more successful if they admitted their fault in the disaster and didn’t dilute the debate with junk science? I have two examples of honesty paying off in a big way for companies.

In early 2011, sales of Domino’s Pizza were slipping. The company decided to try a new method to generate interest in their product – admit their fault and emphasize the improvements they were making. The results were clear – sales drastically improved. In addition to their TV ads, the company also launched a new section of the website where customers could upload pictures of their food. Domino’s made a promise never to digitally touch up food on their website or in their commercials to make it more appealing; instead, they told the consumers that they planned to “do better,” and make a product that actually looks as great as it does in their advertisements.

Second, you might have seen the new ads McDonald’s is running on the Internet that focus on the quality of their food. It is no secret that many people doubt the health value of a meal at McDonald’s, but their new ads don’t claim McDonald’s should be a new health craze, they simply show the viewer exactly how their food is made, all the way from the pasture to the wrapper. Once again, honesty is key.

The clear difference between BP, McDonald’s and Domino’s is that only one of them caused billions of dollars in damage to the planet. However, I would argue that the same ethical principles apply, regardless of the situation. When crisis arises, inform the public about what happened and do it truthfully.