Black Waves, Purple Strategies: PR and the 2010 BP Oil Disaster

Cleaning Up the Mess

On April 20, 2010, almost five years after Hurricane Katrina, the BP-operated ultra-deepwater rig called the Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Louisiana coast. The explosion killed eleven people and started an oil volcano that gushed over 5,000 barrels a day until the well was capped three months later on July 15th.  As oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, BP hired corporate communication firm, Purple Strategies, to clean up the resulting public relations mess. Examination of this well-positioned firm can offer insight into how the oil giant that caused what is widely regarded as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history can not only preserve its oil drilling operations in the region but continue to make huge profits and remain one of the largest oil companies in the world. Moreover, this blog post explores the means by which hegemonic notions of natural and environmental disaster that de-emphasize human causes and risk, remain so prevalent in spite of over thirty years of disaster research that highlights the inextricable links between disastrous events and their social context, which include dominant social trends, such as risky deepwater oil extraction off the Gulf Coast, and deep social problems of a society, like flawed government oversight of the oil industry.

Purple Strategies

Purple Strategies is one of the most well-connected public relation firms in the United States. The company was formed in 2009 out of a merger between Issue and Image Company and National Media. These two companies were led by two of the most respected political campaign strategists in DC. The CEO of Issue and Image Company was Steve McMahon, an attorney and political consultant, who worked on the campaigns of many Democratic mayoral, gubernatorial, and presidential campaigns, including most recently the 2008 Barack Obama Presidential campaign. The head of National Media was Alex Castellanos. Castellanos has worked as a political and corporate consultant for many of the most powerful figures of the last twenty years including George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Jeb Bush. According to his personal biography on Purple Strategies website he is often credited as the “Father of the Attack Ad.” There are three other founding partners of Purple Strategies: Bruce Haynes, John Donovan, and Mark Squier. Each of them has held senior positions in charge of media relations, public image, and advertising for the GOP or Democratic National Committees. Recently, Purple Strategies expanded their Chicago office by hiring people from Rahm Emanuel’s staff. Purple Strategies staff of sixty-three is stacked with people who are politically connected at multiple levels of government.

In addition to the political connections, Purple Strategies boasts some incredibly powerful corporate clients. In addition to BP, Purple Strategies does crisis management and PR work for Times Warner and some of the most important business associations in the world including PhRMA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. All the founding partners and many of the other employees have served important roles in some of the very biggest Fortune 500 companies and Forbes top 100 companies. In addition to allowing the company to remain competitive within the world of PR, these important relationships constitute an overlapping social network of the some of the most powerful organizations on the planet.

PR and a Changing Mediascape

Public relations firms have a unique position in an increasingly conglomerated and commercialized media landscape. In his chapter, “U.S. Media at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century,” Robert McChesney explains how media ownership is increasingly consolidated under the control of few very large corporations (1999, 28). Furthermore, the biggest media companies are conglomerates of smaller subsidiaries that operate different media and material culture, which work in concert to increase profits from advertising. McChesney explains that this drive to increase advertising revenues in new ways has compromised the editorial content of media (35). This is especially the case for journalism, where newsrooms are shrinking, and news is seen through the lens of commercialization and profit rather than as a public service (51). Purple Strategies and other PR firms have access to media in ways that news and investigative journalists do not, because they do not face the same structural constraints. Their work relies on the funding of their incredibly wealthy clients, which leaves them with more investment capital than newsrooms. This also gives them airtime. Frequently, Purple Strategies’ analysts are guests on the popular nationally syndicated news programming of Fox and NBC. BP also invested heavily in television, radio, and the internet following the 2010 BP Oil Disaster. Additionally, the firm worked alongside other PR giants to influence public opinion using new media. PR firms have the ability to manipulate opensource and social media in the same ways that individuals can to express the worldviews of their clients. Their investment capital also gives them access to other tools, such as sponsored links. After the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, BP was criticized for spending an estimated $10,000 per day to have their ads be the first to show when searching Google, Bing, and Yahoo and other search engines for terms like Oil Spill, Gulf Disaster, and BP. As Croteau et al. 2012, 44-45) explain, conglomeration has been a burden for smaller and midsized print media, television, and radio companies. This is less so for PR firms like Purple Strategies, who have gained incredible power as information brokers who have established a deep marriage with corporate elite. New media is often touted as a democratizing technology that offers anyone (with access) an equal voice in the public sphere. However, in its use for public relations, the internet is often a resource for giant companies, like BP to reproduce their worldviews.

Over the past thirty years, petro-chemical companies increasingly use of media and science to limit their culpability and downplay the catastrophes they create (Button 2010, 149-167). Purple Strategies went to great lengths to control scientific information after the 2010 BP Oil Disaster. Foytlin (2013) exposes ChemRisk, a for-profit scientific research firm that published questionable science on the hazards Gulf Coast residents face due to the spill. During Foytin’s interview with the authors of the study, Dick Kiel, a Purple Strategies employee (who introduced himself as a ChemRisk scientist) was there to monitor and limit the conversation. According to Button, as newsrooms shrink and the PR industry expands, companies are more easily able to reproduce uncertainty following industrial spills by promoting bad science (167). Purple Strategies promoted false scientific claims and exerting control over journalists’ interviews in order to influence the public discourse about the spill.

Booming Local Voices

As BP coordinated a haphazard cleanup on the gulf coast using various techniques of containing the oil including toxic dispersants, fire, and oil boom. Meanwhile, as discussed above, they devoted incredible resources to booming, or constraining, critical responses as well. These clandestine strategies for spreading BP’s messages are attempts at creating a reality without acknowledging that they are creating the reality that BP desires. According to Bishara (2013, 52), “Contemporary journalism can be seen as part of a modernist textual tradition in which the processes of textual production tend to be erased.” PR firms like Purple Strategies are the newer and more well equipped masters of this tradition. In fact, this obfuscation is a primary function of their services in winning the hearts and minds of the public on behalf of their clients. The position of Purple Strategies in the world of PR, media, and politics alongside their success at hiding the means of their knowledge production helps them maintain hegemonic frames for communicating information about the BP Spill. They do so by promoting messages that frame a single narrative that explains the disaster simply as an accident, deemphasizing trauma, long-term suffering, and diverse experiences of the oil industry’s very presence in the region. Drawing on media scholar, George Gerbner in her gender analysis of advertising, Tuchman (1978b) refers to this kind of media marginalization as “symbolic annihilation.”

The symbolic annihilation of local voices after the BP Oil Disaster, however, is an incomplete project, and powerful local voices seep through. For example, as the oil continued to flow, community members, activists, and local journalists created a community-based new media project, Bridge the Gulf. To counter the oversimplifying PR language and oversaturation of non-local voices that ignore the daily struggles of diverse residents, Bridge the Gulf expresses a deep commitment to storytelling. The site hosts a blog where local journalists and community leaders can post news and prose promoting community and ecological health in the region. Similarly, Stephen (2012) shows how important storytelling was in Oaxaca, after police attacked a teacher’s protest in 2006. According to Stephen, the testimonies and social interactions that community radio allowed was crucial for expanding the political discourse and publicizing the human rights violations there (125). As Stephen explains, “In Oaxaca, as elsewhere, the right to speak begins with actually speaking, with thinking of yourself as someone who can speak about experiences of injustices. It depends on a sense of membership within a larger community of people of similar speakers with similar rights” (126). Participatory media projects, like Bridge the Gulf, amplify the voices of those most directly affected by the oil industry.

Works Cited

Bishara, Amahl. 2013. Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Button, Gregory. 2010. Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Coleman, Zack. “BP argues it’s being bilked in spill claims” The Hill. September 23, 2013. http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/318375-bp-pushes-back-at-gulf-oil-spill-settlement (accessed September 20, 2013).

Croteau, David, William Hoynes, and Stefania Milan. 2012. Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences 4th ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Franke-Ruta, Garance. “Washington PR firms cashing in on BP spill” Washington Post. June 4, 2010. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2010/06/washington-cashe. (accessed September 20, 2013).

Friedman, Emily. “BP Buys ‘Oil’ Search Terms to Redirect Users to Official Company Website” ABC News. June 20, 2010. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Broadcast/bp-buys-search-engine-phrases-redirecting-users/story?id=10835618 (accessed September 20, 2013).

Morgan, Gareth. “BP buys ‘oil spill’ sponsored links for Search engines” Short Sharp Science. June 7, 2010. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Broadcast/bp-buys-search-engine-phrases-redirecting-users/story?id=10835618 (accessed September 20, 2013).

O’Leary, Noreen. “Purple Strategies Hires From Burnett, Emmanuel Team Chicago Office Expands” AdWeek.com. May 9, 2013. http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/purple-strategies-hires-burnett-emanuel-team-149311 (accessed September 20, 2013).

Tuchman, Gaye. 1978b. The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media. In Hearth and Home: Images of Women in the Mass Media. Eds. Gaye Tuchman, Arlene Kaplan Daniels, and James Benet. New York: Oxford University Press. 169-185.

Wright, Judith Hess. 2003. Genre Films and the Status Quo. In Film Genre Reader II. Eds. Barry Keith Grant. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 41-50.

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