Behind the Curtain (the assault on reality comes in many guises)

I’ve been working on a post about BP for LittleSis and I wanted to do some follow-up work here.

This New Republic piece by Steve LeVine contains some frighteningly interesting glimpses behind the curtain into the collective boardroom psyche of oil executives and flacks working for BP and beyond. It isn’t pretty.

LeVine records the lamentations of “oil and p.r. industry veterans who say that BP lost control of public perceptions virtually from the outset.” My question is: what about a gigantic, hideous oil spill destroying animals and fragile ecosystems comes down to being construed as a matter of perception? This spill is a tragic, unfortunate fact, and when you look deeper and see all the cut corners, compromised regulators and paid-for politicians–the perception of this incident worsens dramatically. There is no room for interpretation. The heartbreaking pictures emanating from the Gulf speak loudly and in unison. But in our new-pseudo reality dominated by image consultants and PR firms, companies like British Petroleum have enough money and gall to try and manipulate the “perception” of their greedy disaster and in extreme cases actually challenge and assault its factual basis by the constant, relentless manipulation of “perception.”

The oil industry’s obsession with public “perception” of this incident (mentioned repeatedly in this piece) and their failure, in this case, to control “perception” stands as a perfect example of the callous absurdity of corporate priorities. Instead of British Petroleum being embarrassed that “a piece of machinery costing .004%” of their 2009 profits wasn’t installed on Deepwater Horizon to mitigate the magnitude and severity of the exact type of spill we’re seeing now, they, and their industry colleagues, are far more concerned with the “clumsy” PR response according to the sources quoted in LeVine’s article. Never once have you or will you hear a BP exec. discuss ways (like including acoustic switches) to make their wells safer and more efficient. They’d rather try to alter reality to make it seem that there are other ways to perceive their wanton disregard for safety and nature.

Somebody with the title “corporate crisis consultant” actually worries, in LeVine’s story, about how well the Gulf spill “plays to the ‘Don’t Drill, the sky is falling crowd.'” Because, you see, everything that happens in the world is now something that corporations view as an event that can and should be stage managed (hence the word ‘play’) to adhere to, and ultimately benefit, their version of reality. A reality often at odds with what a majority usually would perceive as objective reality, so perceptions must be shaped and shifted accordingly. In their reality BP’s mistake wasn’t greedy carelessness manifested in shoddy engineering, it was the company’s failure to properly coordinate who would “take charge of the public message.” Instead of worrying about a piece of fail-safe equipment that is mandatory for drilling throughout most of the world, BP’s real sin was not having a robust “pre-disaster” plan complete with “‘competitive video.'” Here’s the “crisis consultant” defining competitive video

“competitive video,” meaning pre-prepared company footage that can be offered up to networks as stock shots for broadcast. In BP’s case, this could have included training drills and the application of dispersants “You know there will be horrible pictures” in such a situation, Spaeth explains, so it’s important to get out company images prior to the appearance of pictures in “the dead, soiled bird stage” of a catastrophe.”

Canned safety videos released to pliant news outlets to compete for airtime with those pesky, mood-killing “dead, soiled bird” pics: this is what passes as a  technique recommended for inclusion in a “pre-disaster plan” designed for major oil companies by the hacks they pay handsomely to explain away their disasters  as just a matter of “perception?”  This is one of the saddest, yet purely unadulterated expressions of the corporate ethos yet recorded.  It’s an ethos and belief system that says: never look at improving your products and/or procedures, when you can focus on making your inevitable damage (if corporations are the models of competence and efficiency they are always touted as: why is there a need for a “corporate crisis consulting” industry?) appear somehow benign, if you hope for the best and try hard enough with hastily employed “competitive video.” The fact that this damage, caused by predictably sloppy, negligent corporate behavior, is destroying land and lives never, ever occurs to these people. All BP can do is curse their luck and whine about how, despite all their efforts, the majority of the public correctly perceives what they do as being “a dangerous, dirty business.”

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