I recently wrote a research paper on the ethics of BP’s tourism advertisements, post oil spill that is. I really enjoyed the relevancy of the topic, but I found that it was really hard to access their public relations strategy without having proof of whether or not BP is being honest and transparent. The main topics I discussed were:
- PRSA’s Ethics Code values of truth and loyalty: It is in the hands of public relations specialists to disseminate accurate information so that the public may create an informed opinion. On the other hand, there is a battle between loyalty to the client’s well-being and interest, in this case BP, and the public.
- Receiver responsibility: At the end of the day, the impact of most campaigns should be shared by the efforts made by the company to persuade and the willingness of the audience to accept the communication messages it receives. As message receivers, we should be critical and skeptical of information, rather than passively accepting any news we see, read or hear. What complicates receiver responsibility, and ends up placing more accountability on the sender (or organization), is when the message is intentionally faulty; for instance, if the message uses false information, misleads its audience or flat out lies. Another tool that can complicate receiver responsibility is emotional appeals, which we see a lot in perfume advertisements (think Axe appealing to 16-year old sex drive).
- Maximum versus minimum ethics standards: My communication ethics text explains this concept really well: “Should guidelines for assessing the ethics of human communication be stated as minimum criteria to be met in order to maintain ethicality? Or should they be stated as maximum ideals we are obliged to strive for?” (Johannesen, Valde, & Whedbee, 2008, p. 100). I made the case that with such a great scope of influence, BP should adhere to the latter.
- Ends/means justification: Does a good ends justify bad means? In this case, I think BP definitely has identifiable good ends (increased tourism in the Gulf, and more positive company image) in a addition to some bad ends (locals upset from outstanding debt from “lost summer”). But are the means good or bad? Is running an ad to bring tourists into the Gulf a bad means?
Watch the advertisement, and think about how it makes you feel. Do you think this advertisement is a good means or not and why?
Here is an excerpt from my research paper:
“In order to determine the ethicality of BP’s public relations strategy, it is crucial to understand whether or not they are intentionally disseminating truthful and accurate information about the safety of the Gulf. Unfortunately, there are definite limitations to determining the accuracy of BP’s reporting for a few main reasons. First, the information which BP reports regarding the safety of the Gulf and other updates will always be presented in favor of BP’s public image because loyalty will first and foremost be directed towards BP. Second, there is conflicting information regarding the toxicology levels in and around the coast of the Gulf (Allen, 2011; Surfrider Foundation, 2012). Third, there are several sources of reports. Different groups of researchers, from independent organizations, nonprofits, universities, and national organizations have tested in completely different locations within the affected area of the Gulf. Fourth, the lack of baselines, or starting calculations to be compared with “affected” specimen/water/sand/etc. has affected the accuracy of scientific reports (Flowers, 2013; Allen, 2011). Through my research, I was unable to determine whether or not BP was being transparent about information that they knew/know, or whether or not they used all of their resources to support research efforts. The facts are that the research is very conflicting, with larger organizations like the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences either reporting nothing or positive results, and smaller organizations like Surfrider reporting neutral or negative results. This discrepancy makes me critical of BP’s information.
…It is true that the year after the oil spill the Gulf states suffered great economic loss from their tourist season, which for many coastal towns financed the entire year (Allen, 2011; Galofaro, 2011; Robertson, 2011). At the same time, it is so clear that BP’s public image gets a major increase in likeability and credibility. It is also still questionable whether their means are legitimate; I personally see their ads as being slightly distasteful or tacky. So with questionable means and intentions, a good outcome for Gulf economies, and a good outcome for BP, is their strategy ethical? BP’s public relations strategy to promote tourism in the Gulf fails to adhere to ethical standards because it leads the general public away from being concerned about the safety of the region; this further puts the local population at risk and hides the true urgency of this environmental disaster. Although the economic boost is positive, it should not undermine efforts to educate the public on the adverse effects that an oil spill has.”
What do you think about BP’s public relations strategy? Is it an appropriate response to the environmental disaster? Is it a caring gesture to the locals affected by the oil spill?
Allen, G. (2011, April 18). A year after Gulf Oil Spill, Florida sees a comeback. Retrieved February 14, 2013, from Npr.com: http://www.npr.org/2011/04/18/135326540/a-year-after-deepwater-florida-sees-a-comeback
Flowers, C. (2013, February). Oil spill researchers tell what they learned. Environmental Factor.
Galofaro, C. (2011, September 2). Gulf Coast beach communities chalk up a good summer. Retrieved February 14, 2013, from The Times-Picayune, Nola.com: http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2011/09/its_been_a_good_summer_for_gul.html
Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in Communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
Robertson, C. (2011, July 15). No vacancies, but some reservations. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from The New York Times : http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/16/us/16gulf.html?pagewanted=all
Surfrider Foundation. (2012, April 16). Surfrider Foundation releases findings of Gulf Oil Disaster study. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from Surfrider Foundation: http://www.surfrider.org/press-center/entry/surfrider-foundation-releases-findings-of-gulf-oil-disaster-study