the audit

"BP Journalists" and Their Greatest Propaganda Hits

Tone-deaf PR from the oil spiller
June 22, 2010

The Wall Street Journal‘s Benoit Faucon got a hold of BP’s in-house magazine Planet BP, and has some fun with it.

But in Planet BP — a BP online, in-house magazine — a “BP reporter” dispatched to Louisiana managed to paint an even rosier picture of the disaster. “There is no reason to hate BP,” one local seafood entrepreneur is quoted as saying, as the region relies on the oil industry for work.

Indeed, the April 20 spill on the Deepwater Horizon is being reinvented in Planet BP as a strike of luck.

“Much of the region’s [nonfishing boat] businesses — particularly the hotels — have been prospering because so many people have come here from BP and other oil emergency response teams,” another report says. Indeed, one tourist official in a local town makes it clear that “BP has always been a very great partner of ours here…We have always valued the business that BP sent us.”

I found some more stories at by “BP reporters Tom Seslar and Paula Kolmar (who) are on the ground in the Gulf.”

Something tells me Seslar and Kolmar aren’t getting the run-around the rest of the press is from BP and its contractors.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Indeed, there’s a trove of BP propaganda on the site. Even a story as ostensibly negative as this one, which ledes… (all emphasis in this post is mine)

Betty and Elson Martin tell me they are worried. Her back was broken in a car accident three months ago, and he was diagnosed with bladder cancer a couple of weeks ago. Now they fear the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens the seafood market and restaurant they’ve turned over to their three adult children.

…wraps up in the end to exhonerate good ol’ BP:

“There is no reason to hate BP,” Betty says as the three Martins analyze the situation from rockers on the front porch of Elson and Betty’s home. (The Martins and their married children – Jeffrey, Tanya Cheramie and Dana Gros – all live on the same short street about three blocks from B&E Seafood. The six grandchildren live on this street too.)

“The oil spill was an accident,” Elson says.

Of course, BP didn’t intentionally blow a hole in the Gulf floor. But the reporting we’ve seen so far has shown a negligent, corner-cutting culture that goes back at least a decade.

Another piece by Seslar, who calls himself a “BP journalist,” compares a taxi driver’s communications issues with that of oil-spilling, multinational corporation BP:

Paul, a well-spoken man supplementing his Social Security income by driving a Houston taxi, sees BP’s current image challenges as similar to what he faces all day long.

And the taxi driver, conveniently enough, has a parable for BP about why he, like a “BP journalist,” (sorry buddy, but you’re not a “journalist”) has to “stick to the facts”:

“The spill is a sad, unfortunate situation,” Paul offered as we rode along the freeway. “But I never know for sure how a particular rider feels about any subject. So no matter what topic comes up, I just stick to the facts. You can’t go wrong if you stick to the facts.

“If I would try to spin it one way or the other, I’d run the risk of losing my credibility and offending somebody at the same time,” Paul said to me. “That’s why I see a similarity between how you and I both have to operate. Just stick to the facts and you can’t go wrong.”

Again, BP doesn’t want to just stick to the facts because they’re devastating for it. That’s surely one reason it’s got “reporters” putting out propaganda in the Gulf. It’s obnoxious and completely tone-deaf, another apparently endemic BP trait.

Another “story” is a paean to the offshore-oil industry, with this lede:

My appreciation for the enormity of the oil industry as an economic contributor in the Gulf of Mexico climbed sharply within minutes after I hitched a ride aboard a helicopter that BP had chartered for a couple of oil hunters.

I bet it did!

That one includes this feature-puff/advertorial spiel:

Out here, flying at a height of up to 1,400 feet, the clouds are puffy white and brilliantly lighted but cast dark shadows on the wave-capped water below. We can see to the curvature of the earth and eventually pass over dozens of the more than 6,000 platforms that the oil and gas industry has built in US Gulf Coast waters during the past 60 some years.

That relatively brief span of development is remarkable. Although there were some primitive attempts at offshore production as far back as the 1890s off Ohio and California, the really big oil boom for the Gulf of Mexico didn’t begin until after World War II.

Yet the Gulf now supplies roughly one-fourth of the US oil production and one-fifth of its natural gas.
It’s likely there will be no alternative to the Gulf as a key source of American energy for decades to come. That’s why it is so essential to protect it.

No shame.

Another story helpfully explains why people along the Mississippi coast are so alarmed about the catastrophic oil spill off their beaches:

Waveland has been almost destroyed – twice – by hurricanes among history’s most ferocious. There was Camille in 1969, and then Katrina in 2005. Recovery from Camille took almost a decade, and rebuilding from Katrina is still ongoing.

Perhaps that troubled history swept in from the Gulf explains why there’s such strong interest here in the current oil spill.

Paula Kolmar, the other BP “reporter” isn’t quite as subtle as Seslar. One of her posts lauds the oil cleanup as a “ballet at sea as mesmerising as any performance in a concert hall, and worthy of an audience in its own right.”

You might say the same thing about a brown pelican struggling to get out of the sludge BP dumped on it:

(Charlie Riedel, AP)

And, man, has BP been cutting corners on editors, too?

Flying out on the US Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft to see the oil spill and mitigating activities underway was a privilege that never hit my radar of possible experiences.

The dogged BP reporters try to track down some tarballs on the beach, and—phew!—report the coast is clear!

There was word of a ‘sighting’ of three tar balls on a beach in Pensacola, Florida which is about an hour’s drive from Mobile, Alabama. If you’ve ever been to Pensacola you can understand why it would be worth a trip to check it out; the thought of tar balls on these beaches is heartbreaking.

When my photographer and I arrived we were happy to see the beach crowded with people from every age group from young families to a couple in their 80s.

BP’s “reporters,” yet again, accentuated the positive in a post on how one family kept its reservations for a beach trip to Dauphin Island. Some real reporters, Cary Chow and Ryan Coleman of WALA-TV found an altogether different story just a week later, reporting “business not booming on Dauphin”:

Real estate broker Grace Tyson said those BP contractors have been filling up her rental properties, but overall, business is still down.

“We do have places that are full,” said Tyson. “There are some extra places that are available, but the typical Memorial weekend you have fishing tournaments, let’s go to the beach, kick off the summer. That’s not the general feeling. We’re trying to make that happen, but it’s just not here.”

Not here, unlike the threat of oil.

Three weeks after that, another local TV station reported that vacation rental cancellations on Dauphin were running at 85 percent.

Planet BP never followed up on that story.

Further Reading:

Beleaguered Pensioners: It’s a good thing that BP investors are taking it on the chin.

BP, Government Still Thwarting Press Access: Despite promises to facilitate oil spill coverage, limited transparency persists in the Gulf.

The Journal Excels on BP
: An investigation shows the company repeatedly cutting corners in the Gulf.

ProPublica and WaPo on the Rotten Culture at BP

The Economist Off the Deep End on BP and “Vladimir Obama.”

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.