Handling environmental crises.

Recently I have been interested in how public relations professionals handle crises, especially in the environmental sector. For my PR class this week, we were required to summarize an academic study – so naturally I leaned towards environmental crises. I ended up finding an interesting academic journal article by Maria M. Garcia that looks at various newspaper articles to make sense of the dispute between BP and Greenpeace over BP’s “Go Green” campaign that lasted the 10 years leading up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Garcia sought to find which company the media framed as the “hero” and which was framed as the “villain” during this 10-year time frame.

Here is the citation for the article:

García, M. (2011). Perception is truth: How U.S. newspapers framed the “Go Green” conflict between BP and Greenpeace. Public Relations Review, 37(1), 57-59. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2010.10.001


Creative Commons Photo by Flickr User Fibonacci Blue

The author of the study conducted a content analysis of 10 years of news stories, dating back to October 1999 when BP first announced its “Go Green” campaign and leading up until 2009 when BP renounced the campaign . To be selected for the study, the stories had to mention Greenpeace and BP in the headline or the body. To be included in the final sample, the stories needed to be from a medium or large source, mention BP green marketing, and be relevant to an environmental crisis. Out of the initial 125 stories selected, a sample size of 40 stories was chosen to study; most of these stories were greater than 500 words. Selections were taken from papers ranging from The New York Times to The Oregonian.

The overall takeaway from the study was that, by majority, Greenpeace was named the hero in the situation – a watchdog of sorts – while BP was named the villain and a primary cause of environmental degradation. In fact, 73 percent of the stories portrayed BP as the primary cause of environmental crisis, specifically climate change. A little over half of the articles named Greenpeace as an organization with significant power, while 73 percent of the articles framed Greenpeace as the hero of the situation. When it came to living up to their values, the public believed Greenpeace had met expectations 88 percent of the time, compared to BP’s 50 percent. The general consensus from the selection of articles framed BP as a mega-corporation with harmful drilling activities and questionable safety regulations. Greenpeace was framed as an organization working to protect a helpless environment.

It was interesting to learn how both organizations’ credibility was related to the public’s perception of how well they were living up to their values. While Greenpeace was perceived as highly credible at 73 percent, BP came in at 45 percent. The media accepted Greenpeace’s stance to challenge oil mega-corporations with a genuinely pro-social agenda. BP, on the other hand, was challenged about the accuracy of its reports, as well as its motivations and environmental interests. The most telling number, however, was that 73 percent of the sample articles assigned causal attribution to BP, which means that most articles acknowledged the dangers of climate change and concluded that oil companies were opposing the alternative energy development agenda.

Despite its rebellious acts and high involvement in the conflict, Greenpeace was generally forgiven by the media; BP, however, was associated with high causal attribution and low credibility, making it the villain in this case. This study also provided an example of how words can shape the image of a company, seeing as the most popular descriptions of BP included words such as hurtful, greedy, selfish and evil.

In conclusion, this study has helped me to see how framing can shape the way people perceive events, crises, companies and individuals. This study shows that transparency is always the best option, as long as an organization is living up to its values. These values have the power to shape readers’ perceptions of environmental issues in newspapers and influence groups with the power to change policies. This study shed light on public discourse centered around government policies – exemplified by the environmental crises of climate change. A good, transparent PR strategy perhaps would have improved BP’s negative portrayal in the media.


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