BP and its CEO Tony Hayward are dealing with a catastrophe the size and scope of which few in modern times have been called upon to deal with, but by balancing open communication, accountability and a mission that rivals the Apollo 13 rescue, they have the chance to do more than just weather this storm – they may come out ahead, turning an Exxon Valdez-sized branding disaster into the beginnings of the new century’s biggest branding story.

I may be one of the very few saying that BP has the chance to come out ahead in this situation, but here’s what I see and why I see it this way:

  1. CEO Hayward has steadfastly refused to spin the message. Nor is he hiding in a glass tower somewhere else. He’s close to the action, marshalling a 24/7 operations team working to solve a problem no one has ever solved before.
  2. He has also said, very clearly, that BP will handle it – not just capping the mile-deep gusher but managing the clean-up and everything else that happens as a result of it.
  3. By pointing out the dangers, the long odds and the size of the problem, Hayward has clearly stayed away from hyperbole and overpromising.

This is what a good CEO should do. He’s been doing it and we hope he continues doing it.

I had this conversation with Laura Ries on her blog, Ries’ Pieces, where she presented the case that BP had a branding disaster on their hands. Her main point, as I understand it, is that BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” positioning – a play on their “BP” name that originally stemmed from British Petroleum – falsely portrayed them as a company that had, in fact, gone beyond petroleum. According to her, some 2% of BP’s $73 billion first quarter revenues were from non-petroleum sources. I recall a wonderful quote from former Zambian president Kenneth David Kaunda, who said, “Never call an elephant a mouse unless it gives you great comfort to be trampled to death by a mouse.” BP recognizes $700 million in revenue per quarter from non-petroleum energy sources. Without doing more research than my morning allows, this estimated $3 billion in revenue a year will probably put BP in the top few alternative energy companies in the world. Saying 2% sounds small. Equating that to $3 billion pulls the cover off of a bit of misdirection and spin.

Further, Ries goes on to say that, “Anything BP says will no longer be believed.”  Again, I couldn’t disagree more. Here’s why. If BP continues to manage their recovery operations with clarity and accountability, communicating not just what they’re planning but what their contingencies are – and they make good on capping the spill – then they will have the right to claim a singuluar victory against a Hollywood sized disaster. In addition, if they sweep aside federal limits and simply do what needs to  be done – remember, this is a company that had profits of over $5 billion per quarter – then their transparency and accountability will bolster their reputation and solidify their position as a responsible company in the midst of a transformative time in energy history.

We can all hope and wish and pray that oil would just go away, but the simple fact is that petrochemicals make modern life possible. Oil and coal provide literally all of our energy today and will for the foreseeable future. They are cheap to extract and produce electricity and power more efficiently than any other source we know of today. I believe it was Robert Bryce’s excellent book, Gusher of Lies, that stated the simple fact that if we planted each and every acre of arable land in the United States with soybeans to be used only for biofuel manufacture – that means no corn, no wheat, no livestock, no nothing – we would be able to meet only 2% of the country’s energy needs. This puts energy in perspective.

BP is right to move full speed ahead on petroleum exploration and extraction, just as they are right to look beyond petroleum at cost-effective alternative, renewable sources of new energy. But what is important for the brand here and now is dealing with an environmental disaster. Ironically, the fastest way they could bleed credibility is to try to manage the message while they’re dealing with the problem.

Branding is the sum total of everything your brand and company is, as defined by your public. You may believe that you’ve clearly defined a smart, responsive brand through your website, your press releases and your clever advertising, but if all your customers ever experience is a complicated phone tree manned by tired, cranky people who don’t want to solve your problems, your branding efforts will fail. This shift in perspective – from “us” to “them” – means everything. For BP, this means that their branding legacy stemming from this disaster isn’t going to come from a short term plan. What we’re going to remember is whether CEO Hayward is still standing on the beach in the Gulf of Mexico a year from now updating us on all his company has done, is doing and will continue to do. If this is the image we have of him and his company, then BP may very well emerge as the energy company we trust to do the right thing – even when everything goes wrong.