BP and Greenwashing

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This article tells the story of how "British Petroleum" was re-branded BP, along with its PR tag line, "Beyond Petroleum." For more information about BP and the Deep Horizon disaster, please go to BP.

In late July 2000, BP launched a massive $200 million public relations and advertising campaign, introducing the company with a new slogan - "Beyond Petroleum" - and a green and yellow sun as its logo. The campaign was handled by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, one of the major advertising companies that also owns a slew of PR companies. [1] Around the world the company took out full-page colour advertisements in major magazines.

Ogilvy and BP later won the PRWeek 2001 "Campaign of the Year" award in the 'product brand development'. [2]

One of the advertisements run in the International Herald Tribune in November 2000 stated "Beyond... - means being a global leader in producing the cleanest burning fossil fuel. Natural Gas; means being the first company to introduce cleaner burning fuels to many of the world's most polluted cities; means being the largest producer of solar energy in the world; means starting a journey that will take a world's expectations of energy beyond what anyone can see today." [3]

In a column for CorpWatch, researcher Kenny Bruno dissected the advertisement. "BP's re-branding as the "Beyond Petroleum" company is perhaps the ultimate co-optation of environmentalists' language and message. Even apart from the twisting of language, BP's suggestion that producing more natural gas is somehow akin to global leadership is preposterous. Make that Beyond Preposterous," he wrote.

  • While noting that BP was indeed the largest producer of solar energy, Bruno pointed out that was achieved by spending $45 million in 1999 to buy Solarex which was dwarfed by the $26.5 billion it spent to buy ARCO to expand its oil portfolio.
  • As for the claim that BP was starting a journey that would reshape public energy expectations, Bruno was scathing: "Pretentious stuff for a company serving mainly oil and gas, with just a sliver of solar on the side. Make that Beyond Pretentious." [4]

The re-branding - undertaken in the wake of major controversies in Europe over Shell's role in Nigeria and its ill-fated attempt to dump the disused Brent Spar oil platform in the ocean - was aimed at differentiating BP from its rivals. Associate creative director with Ogilvy on the campaign, Michael Kaye, told the New York Times the campaign was aiming to communicate "BP can be a friend -- listening to consumers, speaking in a human voice." [5]

One of BP's PR advisers was Peter Sandman. [6] While its is unknown whether he specifically advised BP on their rebranding project, non-the-less described it at an Australian mining industry conference as an example of a company adopting the persona of being a "reformed sinner".

Sandman told his audience that this "works quite well if you can sell it. . . . 'Reformed sinner,' by the way, is what John Brown of BP has successfully done for his organization. It is arguably what Shell has done with respect to Brent Spar. Those are two huge oil companies that have done a very good job of saying to themselves, 'Everyone thinks we are bad guys. . . . We can't just start out announcing we are good guys, so what we have to announce is we have finally realised we were bad guys and we are going to be better.' . . . It makes it much easier for critics and the public to buy into the image of the industry as good guys after you have spent awhile in purgatory." [7]

With raised expectations about corporate behavior -- and especially oil companies - BP's move not only sought to distance itself from its more notorious European counterparts but the brasher American oil companies - such as Exxon -- which was fiercely opposing moves to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Group vice president for marketing for BP, Anna Catalano, told the New York Times that BP is "the company that goes beyond what you expect from an oil company -- frank, open, honest and unapologetic."

BP also sought to cultivate 'moderate' environmental groups in a series of 'partnerships' with groups like the National Wildlife Federation. [8] (See the BP and the National Wildlife Federation case study).

However, the trap for companies such as BP is that big-spending promotional campaigns often raise expectations that the organisation is incapable of meeting. Where corporate PR is often adept at explaining away infringements or accidents to human error or failed equipment, considered corporate policy which is at odds with public expectations is harder to explain away.

BP's corporate re-branding was subject to skeptical review amongst activists and some maintream media. In Fortune magazine, Cait Murphy, cuttingly wrote of BP's billboards touting its involvement in renewable energy "here's a novel advertising strategy--pitch your least important product and ignore your most important one ... If the world's second-largest oil company is beyond petroleum, Fortune is beyond words," she wrote. [9]

One of BP's regional presidents, Bob Malone, told Murphy "the oil business has a negative reputation ... We are trying to say that there are different kinds of oil companies."

"As for being 'beyond petroleum'... Malone concedes that BP is decades away. Somehow that didn't make the billboard," she wrote.

Pressure groups accuse BP of splashing out more on advertising its environmental friendliness than on environmental actions[10]:

"Based on current scientific opinion, we believe that it’s realistic to promote actions designed to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations at around 500-550 ppm..." BP Online
  • In March 2007, the Australian reported that "Internal documents have revealed that BP successfully lobbied against tighter environmental controls by regulators in Texas, saving $US150 million in monitoring and equipment upgrades before the 2005 fatal refinery explosion." [11]

Rebranding did not change many underlying BP activities

While BP's rebranding program may have reassured some of its critics, others remained unpersuaded. At its annual general meeting in April 2001, BP was challenged about its interests in projects spanning from Tibet, the Sudan and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

  • A resolution urging BP to disinvest from its shareholding in Beijing-controlled PetroChina - which plans an oil pipeline through Tibet - was opposed by the company, gaining support from only 5% of shares voted at the meeting. Speaking in support of the resolution, Stephen Kretzmann, from the International Campaign for Tibet, suggested that BP's slogan "Beyond Petroleum" should be changed to "Beijing's Partners" or "Backing Persecution". According to a report in The Guardian, he accused BP of "utilising every arcane and legalistic tool to stifle debate on the matter". BP's chairman, Peter Sutherland, dismissed the concerns. "Disinvesting from PetroChina means, in reality, departing from China, which would be a mistake, and would be wrong," he told shareholders.[12]
  • Another resolution proposing that the company do more about climate change was also opposed by the board and defeated, gaining support from 7.5% of proxy voters. Sutherland told the meeting "there have been calls for BP to phase out the sale of fossil fuels. We cannot accept this, and there's no point pretending we can."
  • While as part of its rebranding program the company has touted its 'ethics' policies, one shareholder activist attending the meeting challenged the directors to nominate a country which the company had decided to avoid because of human rights abuses. "After a long pause its chief executive, Sir John Browne, said it would be 'uncivil and inappropriate' to mention any no-go nations," The Guardian reported.
  • BP's business ethics were also challenged when in June 2001 the London newspaper, The Sunday Times, revealed that both BP and Shell acknowledged that they hired a private intelligence company with close ties to the British spy agency, MI6, to collect information on campaigns by Greenpeace and the Body Shop.

The newspaper revealed that German-born Manfred Schlickenrieder was hired by Hakluyt, a private intelligence agency, to report on Greenpeace campaigns against oil developments in the north Atlantic. Schlickenrieder posed as a film maker working on films sympathetic to activist groups.

According to The Sunday Times, the former deputy chairman of BP, Sir Peter Cazalet, helped to establish Hakluyt and former chairman of Shell, Sir Peter Holmes, is president of its foundation. In May 1997 the head of Hakluyt, Mike Reynolds, asked Schlickenrieder whether Greenpeace was planning to shield its financial assets from court orders in the event of it being sued by an oil company. Two months later, Greenpeace occupied the BP oil rig, the Stena Dee, in the Atlantic. BP sued Greenpeace for £1.4 million in damages and succeeded in gaining an injunction freezing the group's bank accounts while the occupation lasted. After police evicted Greenpeace campaigners from the rig BP dropped its legal action and the freeze on the bank accounts was lifted. [13]

"BP countered the campaign in an unusually fast and smart way," Greenpeace Germany spokesperson Stefan Krug told the German daily Die Tageszeitung. As Eveline Lubbers noted in PR Watch, "since BP knew what was coming in advance, it was never taken by surprise." [14]

In other areas though, BP has made some concessions to public pressure. In early 2002 the company Lord Browne, who was then company chairman, announced that it would no longer make donations to political parties anywhere in the world. In a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Browne, said "we have to remember that however large our turnover might be, we still have no democratic legitimacy anywhere in the world … We've decided, as a global policy, that from now on we will make no political contributions from corporate funds anywhere in the world". [15]

Yet, in 2008, BP spent over half a million dollars on its US Political Action Committee. (See BP.) BP stated that it will continue to participate in industry lobbying campaigns and the funding of think-tanks. "We will engage in the policy debate, stating our views and encouraging the development of ideas - but we won't fund any political activity or any political party," he said. In response to a question, Browne said that over the long term donations to political parties were not effective.

In August 2007, Advertising Age reported that BP had received "a permit from the state of Indiana to dump more toxic discharges from its Whiting, Ind., refinery into Lake Michigan." The permit, "which allows BP to dump 54% more ammonia and 35% more suspended solids" in the Great Lake, has "enraged" Chicago officials and "raised the specter of consumer boycotts." Chicago's chief environmental officer remarked, "We'd like to have [BP] live up to their advertising." [16]

AdAge called BP's move "the cardinal sin of touting an environmentally conscious image in marketing -- the central focus of BP's advertising for the past several years -- and failing to live up to the message." A company spokesman said BP had "started advertising in regional newspapers ... to clear up misconceptions about the issue." [17]

BP later pledged it wouldn't increase its dumping into Lake Michigan. The pressure on the company was such that "Bob Malone, chairman of BP America, flew to Chicago to deliver the news personally to Mayor Richard Daley, one of several politicians who said the company's initial plans were unacceptable to the public," reported the Chicago Tribune. [18]

In late 2007, BP also decided "to invest in the world's dirtiest oil production in Canada's tar sands," reported The Guardian. BP's investment in "the Alberta tar sands, which are said to be five times more energy-intensive to extract compared to traditional oil," prompted Greenpeace Canada to accuse the company of "the biggest environmental crime in history." [1] (For more on BP and tar sands, see BP and Tar Sands controversy.

BP's former chief executive, John Browne "had said BP would not follow Shell into tar sands as he established an alternative energy division and pledged to take the group 'beyond petroleum.' The new boss, Tony Hayward, has pointed the corporate supertanker in a new direction although his public relations minders insist BP remains committed to exploring the potential of renewables," concluded The Guardian. [1]

Despite this pledge, BP Solar has recently cut over six hundred of jobs from its manufacturing division, in what it claims is a "cost-saving move." [19]

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