Building BP’s Reputation: Tooting Your Own Horn 2001-2002
Corporate reputation: why is it important? How is a reputation created? What is a corporate reputation or a corporate political reputation anyway? And, why might public relations executives care about corporate reputation? Fombrun (1996) suggests that “a corporate reputation is the perceptual representation of a company’s past actions and future prospects that describe the firm’s overall appeal to all of its key constituents when compared to other leading rivals.” It is what the public (either differentiated or at large) thinks of the corporation (Dowling, 2001). A corporate reputation is an integral part of a corporation’s nonmarket or contextual environment (Baron, 1995; Van De Heijden, 2001; Mahon, 2002; Boddewyn, 2003).
Public relations executives are continually challenged with developing, defending and enhancing a firm’s reputation – especially during times of restructuring (Dentchev and Heene, 2004). Moving corporate reputation from an externally directed marketing tool to a strategic asset entails aligning external and internal expressions (Schultz and de Chernatony, 2002; Preece, Fleisher, and Toccacelli, 1995). At the nexus of intertwining external and internal expressions, public relations executives are a window out of the organization through which management can perceive, monitor and understand external changes. At the same time, public relations executives are a window in to the organization to build credibility, transparency and trust in corporate policies (Post, Murray, Dickie, and Mahon, 1983; Adams, 1976). The dual acting window out/window in nature of public relations executives represents the challenges of managing public perceptions and creating internal accountability inherent in corporate reputations. Deploying consistent, coherent strategies to build credible corporate reputations are a key challenge for public relations executives, on a daily basis.
Corporate reputations are tangible assets that help shape a company’s impact in the market place. Solid reputations can produce immense goodwill, translating, into increased share prices, ability to entice employees, consumers and investors; command higher product prices; and reduce potential for corporate crises (Fombrun, 1996; Manon and Wartick, 2003; Vergin, 1998). At the same time, a solid corporate reputation can assist a company’s standing among policy actors (Manon and Wartick, 2003). Simply put, an enhanced political standing can provide (a) an extra psychological value when soliciting stakeholders for assistance; (b) help politicians choose among competitors who want different variations of the same outcome; (c) send powerful signals to politicians who want to do the company harm; (d) allow easier access to policymakers compared to the access granted to companies with less than stellar reputations; (e) get the benefit of the doubt when the corporation is faced with adversity; and, (f) create a reservoir of goodwill to draw upon (Watkins, Edwards, and Thakrar, 2001; Gale and Buchholz, 1987).
Being recognized for a solid corporation reputation is a strategic objective of most large corporations. Almost all companies are aware that aside from politicians, investors, employees, potential employees, and customers, high-end business publications such as The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times are intensely interested in corporate reputations. Every year, Fortune asks managers, analysts and other ‘influentials’ to rate corporations on a number of indices; from that rating, Fortune publishes an extensive list – of the ‘Best Companies to Work For’, ‘the Best CEOs’, ‘the Best Companies within an Industry Group’, etc. Fortune surveys and others such as Business Week and Forbes try to approximate important elements of a reputation.2
While having a good reputation accrues benefits, building and maintaining a solid reputation is not necessarily intuitive, obvious nor serendipitous (Kosnik, 1991). BP’s goal was to mold, or remold, its corporate reputation with particular attention to the standing of the company and strengthening its legitimacy in the United States (Meznar and Nigh, 1993). We examine the genesis of the corporate change, message construction, message deployment, accountability, results and demise of reputation building process in 2001-2002. Surprisingly, breakthrough thinking, forward planning and dogged implementation produced significant results only to have the process abruptly eliminated, a victim of internal corporate politics.
The Corporate Change
BP – an amalgamation of British Petroleum, Amoco, ARCO, and Burmah Castrol – is hardly the exception to the notion that corporations actively attempt to manage corporate and political reputation. For BP, by middle 2001, ample reason existed for a concerted focus on reputation. One reason can be traced to Group Chief Executive Lord John Browne.3
Browne became executive leader of then British Petroleum in 1995, following a stellar and flawless career climbing the corporate ladder (Kellerman, 1999). On the way up – and intensifying with his elevation to Group Chief Executive, Browne set out to burnish, create, and sustain an image of himself as a ‘different kind of oil executive leading a different kind of oil company’ – one who managed the daily assets as well as propel British Petroleum as a major player in the international oil market. Over the next few years, Lord Browne engineered a take over of Amoco, ARCO, Burmah Castrol; expanded British Petroleum’s reach into a truly global company; changed the name of the company; and, spoke forcefully and eloquently on world issues such as global climate change and governmental corruption. Lord Browne’s image as a progressive industry thinker began to pay dividends for BP stockholders. Employees and investors spoke of a “Browne” stock price premium (Berry and Cartwright, 2000).
In the United States, Browne wanted a bigger personal profile for the company and indirectly for himself. A strong personal image was assumed to help sustain the American asset value of the company in the same vein as other celebrity CEOs such as Jack Welch of GE, Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway (Rajagopalan and Datta, 1996). Lord John Browne achieved a measure of celebrity CEO status in Great Britain and wanted the same in the United States where the bulk of BP assets, stockholders, and employees resided. By mid 2001, however, Browne’s image began to tarnish a bit as investors and analysts questioned his stewardship and management style. Perhaps it was time to purposefully change the image and reputation of both Browne and the company.
If one reason for starting a concerted reputation program resided within Lord Browne, the status of the company as a whole became a second reason. The BP reputation problem is best characterized by a Barrons’ article written in 2003 that captures BP’s corporate condition of late 2001 through spring of 2002 – a condition that BP executives clearly recognized in the summer and fall of 2001 and that led to the reputation program:
BP has lost a bit of its swagger. For much of the ‘nineties, the British oil giant’s disciplined approach to returns on capital led investors to embrace it eagerly, and the stock handily outperformed major rivals such as Exxon, Royal Dutch, Chevron during the decade. Management, led since 1995 by CEO John Browne, was considered among the best, if not the best in the business. Since the spring of 2002, however, the swagger has been replaced by stagger, with American depositary stores down about 25%. Prime among the reasons is a missed target; BP conceded last year that it would fail to meet its aggressive goal of 5.5% growth in oil production for 2002. It turned out to be 2.9%…BP shares have lagged behind both the broader market and those of its peers…with some hard lessons behind it, management looks set to turn the corner on its problems, which should get BP shares strutting again…4
BP management wanted to recapture the ‘first mover’ advantage they perceived BP possessed, Barron’s article suggests, especially about BP’s global 2001-2002 performance along with a desire of management to recapture the ‘first mover’ advantage. BP officials always thought it possessed what was probably sufficient to jump-start a concentrated reputation program (lieberman and Montgomery, 1988). Lord Browne initiated the U.S. reputation building program by personally charging the US senior executive – a regional president based in Los Angeles – with the reputation renewal assignment, and provided him with an unambiguous corporate charge: ‘make a step change in public awareness…to create understanding of the company’s size and scope in the United States and BP’s brand values’.5
The management structure of the Reputation Team was clear and defined. BP’s senior executive in the United States was responsible and accountable for plan formulation, implementation, and securing corporate office, i.e., London’s, ‘buy-in’ to the program.6 Reporting to this executive, would be a senior member of the US Communications Group to have day-to-day oversight, a project manager, communications experts, and administrative support. The management structure was augmented by personnel from corporate headquarters in London, external consultants with expertise in advertising, public affairs, polling, and government relations. The external experts accelerated the notion that the reputation building process was in effect like a political campaign with a ‘war room’ atmosphere and central Houston based headquarters.
A number of reputation building assets were preexisting within BP (Fleisher, 1993). Yet, it took purposefully and effectively integrating them to have the kind of impact that would manifest itself in magazine surveys and in the political world. These assets seemed to be in four categories:
* Cultural Direction – as the formulators saw it, BP has a kind of maverick reputation, different than most oil companies, perhaps more progressive on a host of fronts – technology, environment, marketing (Dowling, 2001; Schuler and Rehbein, 1997, Hagberg and Heifetz, 2004).
* Visionary Leadership – based on the public and personal reputation of Group Chief Executive Lord John Browne – who by many accounts was perceived as a worldview leader.7
* Merger Opportunity – after completing a variety of mergers and acquisition, it was now a new company with a new name, BP, and could redefine itself as such.
* Right Sized – with its mass of assets, employee mix, and international reach, BP was a world player and required a consistent global reputation.
These assets were bracketed by at least an equal number of mission challenges:
* The ongoing BP corporate branding theme Beyond Petroleum – while having a number of benefits such as a quick and easy play into an environmentally friendly business strategy also had some downside – mostly with the investor community. This community had difficulty grasping the long term nature of the branding program…and caused investors to ask: Exactly what is BP – is it an oil company and has exploration and production missions as a primary objective – or, is it an oil company that does not want to be an oil company? (Enwiller and Will, 2002).
* Another challenge was – in light of the ongoing slogan of Beyond Petroleum how to create specific goals, themes, and messages consistent with the “Beyond” notion but evoking a more defined and filled in reputation response, as opposed to the open ended amorphous connotations suggested by “Beyond.”
* The next challenge was tactical – how to get this message out?
* Finally, the accountability challenges – once money, resources, and time is invested in a program how to measure results?
What did BP hope to gain from a reputation-building program, aside from a higher profile in the US for Browne and an enhanced overall corporate image among a differentiated public? In no particular order of importance, first, BP wanted to increase public policy leverage with a variety of potential constituencies – office holders, writers, opinion makers, nongovernmental groups (Mitchell, Hansen and Jepsen, 1997). second, BP wanted to employ reputation enhancement to increase shareholder value, increase product sales, support for new business endeavors, and such (Vergin, 1998). Third, BP wanted to enhance standing with key investors and security analysts units: mutual funds, rating houses, funds, banks, and brokerages. Fourth, BP wanted to help mold a one-culture company – get employees thinking less in terms of the heritage (BP was recently formed from combination of British Petroleum, ARCO, Amoco, Castrol) and more in terms of the ‘new company.’8
From the onset, the “success of the (reputation) plan will hinge on a clear, singular theme, with supportive messages, which needs to be consistently communicated.” The Team conducted extensive research – from focused groups to major opinion studies. Research was conducted with stakeholders external to the corporation about what BP meant, and how the public thought petroleum and how other companies should behave. The team also assessed the competition, its market capability, and drew an integrated view of BP’s market and nonmarket environments (MacDaniel and Sistruck, 1991).
Based on the research data points and combining that with a widely shared internal corporate beliefs set9 about how BP should be perceived by Outsiders’, the Team developed overall framing ideas coupled with devising specific notions about BP as a company (Nelson, 1999). The team settled on an overriding theme: BP is big in America and is re-inventing energy. The Team crafted messages that emphasized the theme, noting that BP is the biggest oil and gas producer in the United States, that BP was investing in solar and clean gasoline fuels and renewables, that BP had over 45,000 employees in the United States and that BP was a different kind of company, responsible, ethical, bold, and open.10
The message theme captured the key notion the Reputation Team wanted to emphasize: that BP was important to America, important to the US consumer, political elites and investors. And, that while still a ‘British’ chartered company, the US economic base was so large and so important to the company that it should be considered as much of an American company as well as British. BP, after all was a global enterprise but with deep and wide American roots.
The messages would emphasize the “key BP values of performance, innovation, green, and being progressive.” Combining this message stream with the BP-Beyond Petroleum tag would place a spotlight on the forward thinking, unique, and distinctive aspects of the company. The message set was seen as providing a complimentary and reinforcing edge to advertising, personal appearances, and advocacy consistent with how BP leaders defined themselves and the company (Watkins et al., 2001).
The reputation building strategy centered around two key levers: first, close integration of retail marketing, advertising, and communications; second, creating and leveraging of “Big Moments” – those important, large emphasis events that would feature BP Chief’s Executive John Browne or other management group members. The Team rightly recognized that putting Browne front and center would allow for the humanization, personalization and identification of the company with a leader with a progressive global reputation. Whether stated or not, the Team also understood that Browne expected to be front and center as often as possible; the Team did not fail to grasp this fundamental fact of internal corporate politics.
The strategy also featured an effort to utilize the various stakeholders with some knowledge of BP, as a base. For example, a stepped up effort to communicate with BP employees so they can “understand key messages and serve as ambassadors…” was an important part of the program.
The actual mechanics were:
* An integrated, leveraged communications program in major hubs, state capitols, major marketing cities and operating communities designed to maximize business benefits.
* A cohesive reinforcing advertising and corporate reputation program…with audiences targeting internal and external stakeholders from the competitive and nonmarket environments of BP:11 opinion leaders, motorists, investors, employees, government officials, media writers, and other opinion formers (Lord, 2003).
* A focused program of Big Moments – company selected or created high profile events accompanied by advertising, mailouts to thought leaders, political actors, NGO leaders, and TV or radio appearances – spearheaded by Lord Browne and the Group Chief Executives.
* A crisis communication plan/reputation threat plan to protect and guard reputation.
The message delivery strategy became in effect a political campaign: develop the message set, utilize a series of events to reinforce the message, utilize the media and the Internet to move the message, segment and target message with leveraging follow up to opinion makers and differential audiences (Romer, Kenski, Waldman, Adasiewicz and Jamieson, 2003).
The Team established an extensive set of ‘engagement opportunities’, events, and conferences that allowed BP employees and executives to deliver the messages. Events included traditional settings such as announcements of the annual BP Statistical Review of Energy, to speeches by John Browne at major universities and community centers. Browne, for example, gave a speech on environment and ‘reinventing’ the energy business at Stanford University and appeared on the “Charlie Rose Show” talking about corporate governance. Browne’s Rose appearance mirrored a speech he gave to Harvard University on a similar topic. BP underwrote a major PBS series Commanding Heights; a number of executives gave speeches to Chambers of Commerce or launched major marketing campaigns or presented financial donations to communities (Heath, 1985).
The communications plan also included nontraditional efforts associated with events such the Albuquerque Balloon Festival, -Keel Laying ceremonies for new Alaskan oil tankers, Tree Plants, Solar Decathlons and such. One particular event in Chicago received significant attention – the Annual Bud Billiken Back-to-School Parade where BP volunteers participated in the preparations for the parade and BP contributed funding for it. Receptions for thought leaders and opinion formers – invited guests – were held in conjunction with these events. Senior executives and communication team members were dispatched to the events to increase the physical spread of the messages.
These events were preceded by an extensive “preevent” preparation including speech development, coordinated pre-meetings with key officials, and coordinated corporate advertising to help emphasize/reinforce the event, notifications to investors within the communities, appropriate NGO meetings, and press activities. The post-event planning and implementation included follow-up press activities, mail outs, post event opinion surveys, follow-up corporate financial donations, think tank sessions, and extensive mail outs and contacts.
A two hundred page reputation manual outlined a series of value-adding tools and stakeholder leveraging tactics: one-on-one meetings, speeches, media briefings, editorial board visits, op-ed piece development, news and video releases, contributions, scholarships, community meetings, forums, exhibit booths, publications, web sites, books, sponsorships, museum exhibits. Executives and staff could draw from the ‘cookbook’ as events were planned.12
The Senior Executive and his team hoped to ‘sell’ the asset managers and London corporate office via (1) a tight focus through detailed objectives and planning; (2) a supposition that reputation enhancement would add to achieving commercial objectives and become value added to stock price; (3) providing metrics and performance contracts that fixed responsibility and benchmarks; (4) a budget that would not be overwhelming given the size of the BP investment in the United States and needed return from that investment, and (5) projecting the effort as a multiyear endeavor, with large up front and start up costs and decreasing incremental costs – as the reputation began to carry itself (Eden, 1992).
Accountability: Metrics and Measurement
BP emphasizes individual accountability through “performance contracts” signed by each employee outlining to supervisors what will be accomplished during any given year. Performance contracts then cascade up the management chain – generally to inject responsibility and measurable deliverables benefiting the corporation as a whole.
The performance goals for the reputation program were deemed difficult but not impossible to achieve. And, if the goals were exceeded, then the persistent, nagging problem of corporate headquarters’ expectations could be managed. Failure to manage expectations was probably more crucial than meeting the actual metrics themselves (Karten, 1994; Sunder, 2002).
Four key objectives were selected:13
* To achieve a step change increase in awareness of BP as an energy company and as a gasoline retailer. Metric: increase of unaided mentions on weighted basis from 6% current in 2001 to 36% by end of 2002.
* To improve the reputation and recognition among opinion formers. Metric: move from 70% to 90% recognition among opinion formers.
* To increase ranking in Fortune 500 of most admired companies. Metric: move from 15th place to top five. Be ahead of Shell and Exxon Mobil.
* Increase awareness among US employees of key information about BP’s profile from 50 to 80%.
The Reputation Team and BP management undertook a deliberative effort to target and indeed game performance metrics. Consider the Fortune ranking. Through its advertising agency, BP found that the Industry sector ranking is derived from a peer group survey against a list of eight specific criteria – such as overall reputation, quality of management, quality of products, innovativeness, people pool, community responsibility, and such. Respondents to the survey include executives and directors from the top ten companies within an industrial sector plus a number of executives from the next fifteen so ranked companies and the financial analysts, bankers and others who follow the sector. The Team began a systematic effort to identify and repeatedly contact these persons – in person, via nonaffiliated third parties, and via mailings – noting speeches, events, business breakouts, and the role played by Lord Browne.
Additionally, Fortune’s top ten overall ranking regardless of sector is obtained from a survey of over 10,000 executives, directors, and securities analysts – asking them to select the five companies they admire most in the US. A listing of these individuals was also compiled and targeted. Advertisements were posted in the magazines that these individuals were likely to read and review: Fortune, Business Week, Financial Times, Newsweek, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. General reputation ads were placed in Foreign Policy and the New York Stock Exchange Magazine; special inserts were purchased for US News and World Report’s 2500 executive list, and, an interview with BP officials by Sky Radio for play on American Airlines First and Business class sections.
The Team worked with Fortune executives to secure an invitation for a BP executive to attend the prestigious Aspen, Colorado Fortune Invitational – a kind of mini-World Economic Forum like Davos held each year. BP’s Deputy Group Chairman Chase attended. The Team followed-up appearances such as this with mailings and electronic postings noting BP participation.
After each ‘Big Moment’ or other significant event, the Team produced detailed reports – termed leveraging reports – that specified the objectives of the event, the messages delivered, the internal communications, audiences and major activities associated with the event. Thus, the “leveraging report” for the Bud Billiken parade noted that actions were taken to brand the VIP viewing area with BP balloons and BP hats, and that a BP parade entry “Sea of Green” was accompanied by a ‘walking unit’ of 200 employees and family members “wearing neo green shirts with children holding pom-poms and adults holding signs articulating BP’s brand values.”
While there are probably many ways to measure results (increased stock price, being under program budget, employee and citizen participation), two types of measurements stand forth. One type is a ‘soft’ measurement that is qualitative in nature. Political actors mentioned BP ads and executive speeches to members of the team, as did a number of press editorial boards, bureau chiefs and ‘influentials’ within the Washington, DC metropolitan area. While such ‘evidence’ is anecdotal, it can be indicative of corporate impact and clarity of message. Additionally, the message itself, along with the ‘Beyond Petroleum’ slogan, was seen as unique and distinctive – not insignificant in the world of reputation building. On a lot of these kind of soft measures – message quality, leadership step out, confidence, uniqueness – the BP approach seemed to have currency.
A second measure is analytical and quantitative. On this score, the first year results of the plan were more than satisfactory.14 On metric after metric, the plan objectives were accomplished. Some with fairly dramatic impacts. The unaided brand awareness increased to 49% – and the number was higher in targeted retail sales areas. Additionally, improvements were shown in BP’s attractiveness as an investment for opinion formers, leading Exxon by some 8% in this group. For all investors, 75% of them could identify BP and they gave the company a favorable rating of 53.3, towards the high end of the range for all oil companies. The data also indicated that BP’s message themes on size, importance, renewables, and energy security tended to be more penetrating with individual investors than did messages from Exxon or Shell.
As for opinion formers exclusively, the awareness number in the pre-reputation plan period was in the low 70% range. The post plan measurement showed about a 15-20% increase. On 18 positive attributes associated with opinion formers and view of BP, there had been an increase among opinion formers – including significant changes in those who now thought that BP produced cleaner fuels, was an environmental leader, was reinventing the energy business, was a good company to invest in, and a growing company with high value.15
The most dramatic results, however, came in the Fortune Magazine rankings. The Reputation Team had an explicit objective of significant upward movement in the rankings. And, it had a stretch objective of surpassing key competitors such as Exxon or Shell. Much of the Team’s second and third level efforts were directed towards affecting the Fortune rankings as the most visible proof of program results. The Fortune rankings were easily understood by all of BP’s stakeholders. The rankings made a stand-alone statement about the company that had a wider and more credible reach than anything the company could proclaim on its own.
In the Fortune rankings, BP started at 4th place in the 2001 Petroleum & Refining Sector survey, and moved to 1st place in the 2003 balloting.16 The Company vaulted ahead of Exxon and Shell with ease. BP still did not make the Top Ten Most Admired Companies – or the top 25 overall. But the in-sector movement was an especially notable accomplishment for the Team.
The (Surprise) Demise
With the accomplishments rightly attributed to the Reputation Team endeavors, there should have been corporate kudos all around, and, there were some. But, the resulting actions from London corporate headquarters were not what the Reputation Team expected. In the late fall 2002, almost at the same time that the revised BP US Reputation plan for the coming year was formulated and presented to the Group Executives in London, those same corporate leaders embarked on an aggressive realignment and downsizing of BP – reacting in part to the sinking of the stock. The irony, of course, was that while the reputation plan in the United States was working – perhaps creating a ‘halo’ effect for short term management and financial miscues (Brown and Perry, 1994) – the overall corporation was not performing well as deemed by investors. In nonmarket terms, BP was making significant penetrating gains. In transactional terms, the company was losing capitalization value.
One casualty of the corporate downsizing was the US reputation program. Funding was dramatically reduced. The program was sliced and eviscerated, the management team disbanded and a catalyst for the program – the senior BP executive in charge – was abruptly transferred to a post outside of the US. A chief skeptic of the program was placed in charge. The instructions from headquarters to this new boss were simple: cut cost dramatically, implement a personnel reduction, and eliminate the organized reputation effort.
But, the questions remain: Why did this happen? Why did it happen when there was demonstrated success? And, why did it happen at the very time that competitors were taking note and planning their own reputation/advertising program?
There seem to be no really good answers – at least known publicly. In the most charitable explanation, when downsizing occurs, a number of programs get cut or reduced. The reputation effort happened to be one of them. Yet, the amount of funding required for staff and implementing the program, given the returns, was miniscule. And, the bulk of the funding was product advertising that would likely continue anyway. What would not continue is the sustained attention across audiences and consistent implemented throughout many levels of the company to institutionalize success.
There are other less charitable explanations. No changes in major corporations happen without a large dose of internal politics, retirements, forced retirements, career enhancements and declines, and other general career-linked personnel fights (Gunz and Jalland, 1996). It is hardly unknown in corporate worlds for rivals to be working behind the scenes to keep others from ascending the ladder or being internally successful. Asset realignment and high level retirements provide the fluidity for promotion and demotion, almost regardless of performance, but very much tied to “winners and losers” or deals made by high level executives on the way out or way in. When the evidence in this case is peeled away, internal politics probably played as much a role in the change as did the overall asset realignment. The senior executive in charge developed a high profile in the United States. Asset managers and other executives tended to get jealous and mused aloud to London corporate about all the money being spent.
Additionally, Lord Browne, the Group Chief Executive, having set the reputation plan in motion and having given it the original approval, apparently failed to sustain that interest through communicating his continued support to his own executive team and their reports. With some corporate ambiguity, other forces – such as rival career activities – are encouraged, or at least not mitigated.
Finally, perhaps there was the view among BP officials that the company had really moved “beyond petroleum.” That it really did not need or require a reputation program. In essence it is a belief, likely prevalent among many BP officials, that even without a program BP could “message spin” markets, media, and public officials…that the reputation program was merely window dressing and cosmetics. And, in the minds of some executives who tended to ignore nonmarket environments, the reputation program was not worth the cost.
When major competitors learned that BP headquarters had axed the bulk of and the driving forces (management executive and management team) propelling the reputation program, the reaction was swift-and gleeful. “I can’t believe they did this…at a time when they were starting to eat our lunch…Now it is lunch time for us.” Another noted, “I thought Browne and the London crowd were smart. They are not smart. Just foolish…” Another noted, “these guys are going to be lucky to be Avis…probably more like National”.17 Even the BP staff noted the reaction from competitors.18
BP, has, however, stirred Esso and Shell. ExxonMobil launched a new corporate campaign targeted directly at opinion formers. Shell has also increased their profile with a national campaign and has signaled a new $30 million corporate communications campaign for 2003.
Of course in the way of most corporations, programs with ostensibly ‘soft’ metrics like reputation building are always difficult to fund and start, easy to eliminate, but when ‘eliminated’, usually they become transformed or ‘reorganized’ in other forms. In BP’s case, the reputation team, even though disbanded, transferred or redeployed to other projects, hoped to salvage a reduced effort mainly through product advertising, station rebranding, and occasional US public events by the Group Chief Executive.
Whether competitors win or whether BP can sustain an adequate reputation effort absent a top-level desire, a concerted public relations effort, and a supportive team remains an open question. Noted BP staff:
The new commitment from both companies (Exxon and Shell noted above) combined with the uncertainty surrounding continued BP brand support would likely make BP reputation gains extremely hard to maintain.19
Why was the plan-and its implementation-save one aspect, a success (Fleisher, 1993)? Several lessons seem noteworthy:
1. Timing – BP’s reputation program launch was simply ahead of its major competition. The other major oil companies had not embarked on such a program. ChevronTexaco and Conoco Phillips were still consolidating; Shell was reorganizing; and Exxon Mobil was not convinced (until after BP started) that they really needed such an effort.
2. Stakeholder Leveraging – one of the key innovations of the BP effort was to take a single event and make two or three or more “hits” out of it. Thus, a Lord Browne speech at Stanford was accompanied by an interview with National Public Radio. Such a method was standard procedure within a political campaign and it became a signature of the BP effort. Time and again small events became magnified simply because of sheer follow-up and second level effort to obtain wider distribution of the message on part of the full communications team. The focus was broadened from ‘public’ relations to stakeholder relations with targeted audiences, multiple media outlets, and aggressive follow-up.
3. Simplicity of Message – the focal point of the message was clear and distinct. There were not too many nuances in it. And, there were enough proof points that individual aspects of the message could be varied without losing overall thrust. The discipline of the message helped reputation building – and indeed helped clarify BP’s reputation activities in the larger, beyond petroleum sense. The BP Sr. Executive in charge drove the team to message simplicity. Explicitly incorporating senior BP executives with communications and public relations experts helped sharpen the message while simultaneously appealing to the general public and key constituents.
4. Deliberate Action – the discipline of focusing on metrics and making the numbers was strategically directed towards impressing key decision-makers at the headquarters office. The BP method was preparation and even more preparation – often to the point of excessive resource wasting. For a John Browne talk on environment to Stanford University forum, the BP staff spent hours determining information about the invitees so that Browne would have an individual outline of who would be in the audience…to the detriment of hours that should have been spent getting even more out of the speech than it did receive. A second aspect of deliberateness was the extensive research program to allow the team and its advertising agency to focus and tweak the messages/delivery when necessary.
5. Integrating Internal and External Opportunities – the visionary CEO, the corporate culture, and newness of the amalgamated company, and global demands placed on a global company – all were part of the message drawing and delivery. Playing to strengths helped move disparate parts of the company to the same page. Lord Browne was a big positive part of this endeavor. Strategically dovetailing internal and external expressions helped create synergistic opportunities for BP.
6. Selected Metrics – while the objectives put forth by the plan were important changes from BP’s then current standings, there were no truly stretch objectives that would have been “audacious” to achieve. For example, while significant gains were made within the energy sector on the Fortune ratings, BP did not become one of the very best companies to work for. The metrics were achieved due to consistent attention and accountability.
7. Leadership and Team Composition – the reputation team had a senior executive leader who could motivate the team, who had a management style that emphasized teamwork, openness, and who espoused bottom up idea generation. Additionally, the Sr. Executive had, he strongly believed, a mission driven directive from Lord Browne which was conveyed to the Team.
8. Internal Corporate Politics – a problem area. The results survived; the plan did not. The first charge of any manager is to tend to the internal corporate knitting. Not surprisingly, the toughest task was securing full participation and buy-in by BP’s top-level executive management. The goal was nothing short of active ownership of the plan and process by senior management, including John Browne. While Lord Browne initiated the program, its sustainability was dependent upon squaring with other corporate objectives, corporate personnel infighting, and overcoming financial budget cutbacks over the long haul. The evidence bulk suggests that the Reputation Team fell victim to corporate personality and hierarchical forces that exceeded the ability of the Team and its leaders to control. One person, of course, could have done so – Group Chief Executive Browne. He did not. And, trying to divine his reasoning involves an analysis of leadership, personality, management imperatives and choice decisions beyond the scope of this paper (Tucker, 1997; Greenstein, 1967).
In 2003 and 2004, BP reemphasized its ‘Beyond…’ reputation program. This renewed ‘Beyond Petroleum’ campaign should help maintain some of the reputation and public relations gains; meanwhile, Browne has been busy refurbishing his and BP’s reputation outside the United States through his again groundbreaking deal in Russia. Said Business Week Online:
Go far, go fast: The same could be said of BP’s 55-year-old boss. During his two-day September trip to the Russian Capitol, Browne packed in as much as a visiting head of state. With police escort parting traffic for his motorcade, he delivered two lectures to university students, met with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, jawed about strategy with his Russian partners, and hosted a party of VIPs among the gold and silver framed medieval icons of the Kremlin Armory.20
References Available Upon Request
1 This case is based on (1) academic literature, (2) BP speeches and other circulated documents, (3) public sources such as radio transcripts, magazine articles and news stories, and (4) participant observation since the first author was a consultant to BP.
2 Fortune Magazine, “America’s Most Admired Companies,” March 3, 2003, p.81.
3 The title is The Lord John Browne of Madingley.
4 Barron’s “Renewable Energy,” July 28, 2003, p. 16.
5 These words are not Browne’s exact utterings but they approximate the charge given to the Sr. Executive and the Team as quoted in the BP Communication Plan.
6 BP Communication Plan, Management Structure, February 2002.
7 Fortune Magazine in August 11, 2003 cited Browne as number one in a list of 12 foreign company CEOs who were classified as ‘powerful leaders’. Over the years, there were a variety of articles in Forbes, Business Week, and the Economist that made the same point. The Fortune piece is simply the most current.
8 Interesting to note that when it came time to rename the ‘new company,’ the name chosen was simply BP. Staff and executives went to great pains to suggest that indeed it was a new company, even though most analysts and observers thought that the name selection implied more of the past – and an attempt to forget the mergers while stressing that British Petroleum was the survivor of the lot. Browne, for example, was asked on National Public Radio, March 17, 2002, “Why did you name it British Petroleum?” Browne answered rather curtly, as if it were obvious, “No. The name is BP. It used to be British Petroleum, but it used to be ARCO, it used to be Amoco, it used to be Burmah Castrol. And we have to pick a name that incorporates all the heritages but looks to the future. So BP is the name.”
9 From the executive summary of the BP Communications Plan: BP is recognized and admired in the United States as an industry leader in the energy sector. We have earned our position by steady progress over the past few years. Beginning with the turn-around in the corporation in the mid-1990s, the story of BP is one of hold moves and performance…The financial community recognized this with the Amoco merger…and ARCO acquisition, enhancing performance…our brand launch and advertising campaigns have created recognition among opinion framers, our rebranding has created recognition among consumers…we are now in position to move into leadership as a progressive, performance driven global corporation.
10 BP Communication Plan documents.
11 BP Communication Plan Document Core Tactics and Key Activities.
12 BP Communications Plan. Major Events.
13 BP Communications Plan. 2002 Measures and Success Factors.
14 The data in this section is based on, “North American Reputation Plan Scorecard and Update, July 2002,”
15 Reputation Survey Data. Political Reputation Report. BP Documents. December 2002.
16 Fortune, “America’s Most Admired Companies,” March 3, 2003, p. 81.
17 First author’s private conversations with competitors.
18 Reputation Update, December 2002.
19 Deputation Update, December 2002.
20 Business Week Online, 10/23/2003. 2004.
Robert L. Healy is a Principal and Senior Director of Wexler & Walker, with over thirty years’ experience in commercial investment, energy, environmental, regulatory, international trade, and global public policy. Mr. Healy was most recently an officer and vice president of ARCO, one of the nation’s largest oil companies, where he held several positions after coming to the company in 1978
Mr. Healy has served several members of Congress, including former Secretary of the Treasury and Senator Lloyd Bentsen, and the late former Vice-President and Senator Hubert Humphrey. His political posts included chairman of the DNC’s National Finance Council, and co-director of Podium, Script, and Speeches for all Democratic National Party Conventions held since 1980. He is an executive committee and board member of BI-PAC, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee. He is a managing trustee of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Jennifer J. Griffin is an Associate Professor of Strategic Management and Public Policy at The George Washington University, School of Business. Her research interests include corporate social performance, political strategy, stakeholder management and corporate public affairs. She has published in a variety of journals including: Business & Society, Public Administration Review, International Journal of Public Affairs, and Corporate Reputation Review, as well as chapters in The Accountable Corporation (2205: Praeger) and the Handbook of Corporate Public Affairs. Prior to academe, she worked for General Electric in the US and The Netherlands.
Copyright Public Relations Quarterly Winter 2004
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved