Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Doctored photo "crisis": BP just can't catch a break

We've been reading in the last couple of days about a new front that's opened up in BP's oil spill PR crisis: an altered photo of its crisis command centre.

Photos from

The original photo was altered so as to show images from actual BP cameras on all the crisis centre screens, rather than having two of them blank (I read somewhere that the blanks were feeds from equipment that was undergoing maintenance when the shot was taken). A BP spokesperson is quoted as having admitted that the photo was altered, and having shared the original photo when the alteration was pointed out.

Was this an attempt to deceive the public about BP's crisis response?

I doubt it. Whoever did the editing likely just thought the photo would (objectively) look better with all screens showing images -- which of course it does (again, objectively). That person's job is to produce quality images; he/she isn't necessarily a PR person, and isn't necessarily thinking about the potential perceived implications of altering an image in this way.

I once had a designer Photoshop the open eyes of a woman over the closed eyes of a man, for an annual report. The male subject was a member of the company's Board of Directors, with a very full schedule: the designer just figured it'd be easier to Photoshop in some open blue eyes (hey, who's gonna notice? Blue eyes are blue eyes!) than to try to get on the guy's calendar, replicate the lighting, etc. etc. in the short timeframe we had available before going to print. Of course, this gentleman was now wearing a thick layer of mascara, but still...

Fortunately, I noticed it before the report went to print, and we found an alternate solution (also involving Photoshop: we put the previous year's open-eyed picture on the current year's background). But if I hadn't noticed, it would've gone to print that way, and I'm sure I'd have had a little PR crisis of my own as a result, even though no harm was meant by the photo edit.

(I also learned an important lesson, and from then on, wrote a clause into all agreements with designers that no changes were to be made to any images or text without our express agreement.)

Did the photo editor have bad intentions when he/she made the change?

I doubt that too.

As in the case of my well-meaning if judgmentally-impaired designer, I suspect this photo editor just wanted a better image. He likely didn't see the alteration as material to the message communicated by the photo, and probably thought he was doing his client a favour.

Does the incident exacerbate BP's already enormous PR problem?

You bet it does.

I've already seen a number of posts from online commenters equating the doctored photo with dishonesty in BP's crisis response in general -- the overall theme being "if we can't even trust that their photos are real, after all this time, why should be we believe anything they say?" The story linked above quotes Americablog reporter John Aravosis as having said "I guess if you're doing fake crisis response, you might as well fake a photo of the crisis response center."


BP is taking it on all fronts. Its crisis response has been condemned at all levels (both in terms of its actions to stop the leak and its communications), and what may be well-intended actions of people on its own team are making it worse.

I have to admit, a part of me is feeling sorry for BP's corporate communicators.

Can you anticipate the bad decisions your team members are going to make? Sometimes yes, but usually, no.

All you can do is to keep everyone involved in your crisis communications response as tightly-knit as you can, do what you can to ensure everyone understands the stakes and is plugged in to the existing and changing perceptions "out there," and communicate openly both within and outside the organization.

And keep your fingers crossed. And if it's what you do, pray.

If you're lucky, no-one on your team will do anything that'll make a very bad situation even less flattering to your client.

If you're not lucky, at least now you'll know that, once upon a time at BP, someone likely had it worse.


  1. When you put it like that, I feel sorry for them too.

  2. I agree about intentions vs bad decisions. And I may feel a bit sorry for their Corp Comm team. But sheesh, they should know better.

    The biggest challenge with altering photos is that there is an expectation that "news" images will be accurate and basically unaltered (e.g. lightened or sharpened is likely fine as long as it doesn't alter the accuracy of the image, just improves the quality). When starting from a shaky position in the first place - like BP's long trail of media relations mistakes in this crisis and the overall world sentiment related to the scale of the damage - any deviation from truth is going to blow up on them.

    On the flip side, no one seems to blink at altered photos in an advertising setting. It's intent is clear from the start - sell the product and make it look as good as possible to do so. As a result, we feel comfortably skeptical about those beautiful models (thank you Dove commercials), the shiny products, etc. Even kids learn early that the toy cars don't really operate by themselves.

    So keeping news accurate and ads interesting seems to be expected and acceptable. It's all about credibility and the online community has high expectations for transparency and honesty. In my opinion, even though the changes were minor, BP blew it.