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BP'S PR Problem—What They and Obama Should Do

"This has not been handled well." That assessment of BP's public relations campaign comes from Mike Sitrick, whose Sitrick & Co. is well known for its crisis management skills.

Tony Hayward, BP Group Chief Executive
Eric Piermont | AFP | Getty Images
Tony Hayward, BP Group Chief Executive

Sitrick admits, "It's very easy to criticize," and, "You have to know the facts from the inside to develop a strategy." However, he says the BP campaign has him confused. "What's their message? They're all over the place, except 'We're gonna make it right,' which you expect."

As BP CEO Tony Hayward prepares to appear before Congress next week, Sitrick says BP's message needs to be, "'This is an extraordinarily difficult problem. We know of nothing we did to have caused it'—I assume that's the case—'and we will continue to try to solve it.'"

Sitrick says his firm has not been contacted by BP, nor has he sought them out, but if he did have the account, "I'd probably suggest something outside the box like put the CEO on '60 Minutes'... you have to have a third party conduct the interview." People know ads aren't independent, but interviews with respected journalists are.

When I point out that one loses control of the message when one submits to a "60 Minutes" interview, Sitrick replies, "That's where the prep is important. We prep our clients the way a lawyer would prep for court testimony."

He says BP should not respond directly toPresident Obama's anger, but instead encourage third parties to come forward to say the President's tone and language are inappropriate. "I'm sure you could find Republicans who would love to jump in."

Meantime, he would advise the President to "haul in the BP executives to the White House." That's the sort of "righteous indignation" he says an angry public is looking for, "not 'We're gonna kick some ass.'"

Then there's the Twitter spoof of BP's PR department www.twitter.com/bpglobalprwhich has gotten national attention, and which the real BP has so far chosen to basically ignore. Mike Sitrick says he'd probably launch a Twitter counter campaign if it was his account.

In the end, Sitrick says BP has not come up with a meaningful message. What does "make it right" even mean? "So far they can't even find a solution!"

He says BP should work to humanize executives by admitting they've been overwhelmed. "'Nobody's more frustrated than we are that we don't have a solution to this'," he suggests as a message. "'We're not gonna stop TRYING until we get it right.'"

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