As the oil industry went into full damage control mode following the catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico, their corporate public relations went into overdrive too, with firms across Washington jumping in to help British Petroleum and BP firing up its Facebook page and Twitter feed. The universe of flacks Americans might be seeing on television and quoted in news stories has widened, with BP executives making the rounds, hosting journalists for explainer sessions and corporate PR folks helping craft an image of a company doing everything it can to help.
The industry already had an army of lobbyists and PR hands deployed in Washington to influence the negotiations over climate change legislation (which may be in dire straits thanks to the spill), and BP brought in the international consulting firm the Brunswick Group.[TPM SLIDESHOW: Fire In The Gulf: New Pictures Of The Deepwater Horizon]
Roll Call reported today (sub. req.) that London-based BP has five outside firms and is using social media to push the PR effort. Politico reported today that BP CEO Tony Hayward hosted Gulf Coast reporters for a Q&A session at the firm’s Washington office.
Among the best-known BP reps in Washington is Tony Podesta, brother to former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta. Tony’s The Podesta Group lobbies on behalf of BP. We asked their role in the oil spill and they referred all calls back to BP. But we know Podesta has the ear of the White House and of his brother’s liberal and influential Center for American Progress.
Also on board is Washington communications consultant Michele Davis of Brunswick Group LLP. BP officials in London referred our calls to her but she hasn’t yet gotten back to us. Davis, a former top aide for Hank Paulson’s Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, recently spoke with TPM for a story about the 2008 bailout.
Roll Call reported that Brunswick was brought on to help with communications strategy, and director Su-Lin Nichols told the paper: “Tony Hayward has been clear with his entire executive team that BP’s focus is stopping the flow of oil, mitigating the impact and keeping the public informed.”
Transocean, which owned the rig, declined to comment on which firms it has hired to manage the PR crisis.
Rhonda Barnat of the Abernathy MacGregor Group represents Cameron, the firm which made the blowout preventive device that failed after the explosion. When asked if she was hired specifically for the incident, Barnat told TPM she is “helping” Cameron.
According to her bio, Barnat is trained to provide counsel “to senior management in highly complex and sensitive crises.”
Also on deck helping is the American Petroleum Institute, where top lobbyists are working with reporters and writing blogs to frame the incident as an aberration in a safe industry. A spokesman told me today there were no ads on television related to the oil spill – yet. The group is using Twitter and Facebook and a fancy Web site to tell the industry’s version of what went wrong. As a side note, API last November hired as executive vice president of government affairs Martin Durbin, Sen. Dick Durbin’s nephew.
President Jack Gerard is appearing frequently on television with the talking points that the nation still needs oil and natural gas and that there’s been “unprecedented” industry response to help.
The most recent lobbying filing disclosure with the Senate for the first quarter of 2010 showed seven firms that did lobbying on behalf of BP. They are the Podesta Group, the Duberstein Group, DC Legislative & Regulatory Services, the Alpine Group, Thomas Advisors, Stuntz Davis and Staffier and Arnold and Porter.
BP itself reported $3.53 million in expenses “relating to lobbying activities” in the first quarter, the disclosures show. This week BP has created a slick new Web page seemingly designed to get positive information out about the company’s response to the spill.
API spent $1.2 million on lobbying in the first quarter.
There were no recent lobbying reports for Transocean or Cameron.
The Center for Responsive Politics found that lobbying activity and campaign spending on behalf of BP was plentiful. From their report:
Its registered lobbyists include a number of former federal government and high-ranking political campaign officials, including longtime political operative Tony Podesta, former congressional chief of staff Bob Brooks, former congressional legislative director David Pore and vice presidential aide Michael S. Berman, the Center’s research shows.
In 2009, BP also lobbied on the Oil Spill Prevention Act of 2009 and the Clean Water Restoration Act.
In 2009, individuals and political action committees associated with BP donated $16,000 to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In addition, five of the all-time top 10 recipients of BP money in the House of Representatives sit on the House Energy Committee: John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) Joe Barton (R-Tex.), Ralph M. Hall (R-Tex.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Fred Upton, (R-Mich.).
All have received upward of $13,000 from BP-related individuals and political action committees during the past two decades. Dingell, the second most favored recipient of BP money in the House, has received $31,000.
There’s plenty of activity going on from other groups as well. Environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr. is representing the shrimpers along the Gulf Coast. MoveOn.org is pressuring President Obama to scrap his newly announced plans for offshore drilling.
Additional reporting by Justin Elliott