When you've gone and polluted so much that a lot of birds are ill, baby, ill, you really have to be careful with your words. However, BP seems to have fallen into the hands of those who defend wordsmithing politicians, rather than those whose emphasis might start with the potential reactions of real people, who use the Web to keep up with the world.
Having assigned itself to a political consulting company called Purple Strategies, BP wheeled out its CEO, a gentleman who claimed, perhaps injudiciously: "I'd like my life back."
In a TV spot that tried for apology and didn't quite plug the gap between itself and reality, Tony Hayward said that he had "the strong support of the government." Which seems curious in the light of President Obama's suggestion Tuesday to NBC's Matt Lauer, that he would have fired Hayward by now.
BP seems undeterred. It has now bought the top ad that arrives with the Google search "oil spill" in a bid to help its cause. The company seems to believe that people will be naive enough to rush to the BP version of the story, rather than, say, observing the online commentary and live video feeds that regularly show that things are not so good.
Perhaps it is true that every little ad on a beigey/yellow background in Google search makes itself more important by standing on the top of all the search results.
The ad certainly gives BP prominence. But is it the right kind of prominence? The copy beneath the ad gives one pause for thought. It reads: "Info about the Gulf of Mexico Spill Learn More about How BP is Helping."
Is "helping" truly the right word here? Is BP helping? Do you really make a mess of something and then claim you are helping? Or is the impression one gets that the company was entirely unprepared for such a spill and has no clear idea how to "help"?
In situations such as this, perhaps the best response would be to focus not on words, but on actions. More straightforward language such as "We really messed this up. Here's what we're doing to try and fix it," might have been more appropriate.
And, when you go to the Web site to which the ad leads you, the most prominent thing on it surely ought to be a live video feed of what BP is doing. Instead, at the time of writing, the main headline under "Gulf of Mexico response" reads: "BP Announces First Payment on Barrier Islands Project for State of Louisiana."
Doesn't this read just a little like a sponsorship deal for a new housing project?
When a situation is this serious, put your doers center stage and show us what they're doing. Then send your talkers to the beach where they can start clearing up the mess with their own bare hands. Only then might at least some people be persuaded that BP is serious and knows what it is doing. And, what is has done.