BP’s Apologia and Visual Rhetoric

In Apologetic rhetoric, New media, Rhetorical analysis, Visual rhetoric on May 10, 2010 at 11:08 am

Three weeks after the offshore oil rig exploded, the situation is still out of control and oil is still spilling into the waters of the Gulf. Attempts to stop, minimize or even contain the oil have so far failed, leaving many people to point the finger at British Petroleum (BP) as negligent regarding not only the safety of its employees but also the of the aquatic life and people living near its oil-drilling operations.

As of this post, the BP website continues to highlight its response to the emergency on the front page of its website, citing two actions in particular:

1. “Reducing the flow of oil spilled by physical containment” and

2. “Further work on stopping the flow using a ‘top kill’ option”

BP’s Visual Rhetoric

In addition, the series of images fading in and out on the main page, show BP employees hard at work on land (educating the public) and on water (apparently working hard to contain or stop the flow of oil). What is missing from many of those images is the ever-growing oil slick that is filling the Gulf Coast and approaching the shoreline. As the saying goes: what you don’t see is just as important as what you do see.

BP’s Website (Click to Enlarge)

The website also provides a link to a series of response maps that are updated daily with projections for the next day. These highly technical maps—while likely confusing to many people—go a long way in positioning the company as being not only informed about the situation, but also on top of the oil slick’s every move.

BP’s Technical Response Map (Click to Enlarge)

The main BP website page also displays links to recent media interviews that BP executives have participated in, and it provides a number of BP-developed videos featuring executives discussing the measures being taken to mitigate the spill. The background visuals are particularly interesting to pay attention to in these videos.

BP Video (Click to Enlarge)

Finally, the BP website contains a  link to the “Response in Pictures.” This section shows a number of images, including this one:

Photo from BP’s “Response in Pictures” Section (Click to Enlarge)

Overall, the visual rhetoric on the website and in the videos focuses the attention on the actions being taken by BP taken to “win” the “war” on three fronts, “in the sub-sea, on the surface, and we will defend the beaches,” as Group Chief Executive Tony Hayward says in one of the videos. That is, the re-actions are highlighted to demonstrate a company that is working hard now that the oil rig explosion—and the resulting oil spill—has occurred.

In terms of apologia strategy, BP’s visual rhetoric puts forth a corrective action strategy, in which the company describes how it is working to repair the damages. But that strategy only answers accusations that BP isn’t doing enough to stop the oil; it doesn’t answer accusations that BP simply wasn’t prepared for such an oil spill, in terms of safety procedures to prevent it or technology to stop it.

Accusations Still Abound

Despite that rhetoric, some people are still questioning BP’s action prior to the explosion. Did BP overlook risk or safety factors that led to the explosion? For example, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stated that his “own preliminary observations” were that—leading up to and after the disaster—BP made “some very major mistakes.”

Nansen Saleri, a Houston-based expert in oil-reservoir management, stated similar concerns, saying: “The only thing that’s clear is that there was a catastrophic failure of risk management.”

Another question being asked is why a response wasn’t already planned for such an accident. As a former Transocean executive stated: “There should be technology that’s pre-existing and ready to deploy at the drop of a hat. It shouldn’t have to be designed and fabricated now, from scratch.”

BP’s Defense

BP defended its actions leading up to the oil spill through a combination of “defeasibility” and “it was an accident” strategies. Both strategies are aimed at evading responsibility. Defeasibility essentially suggests a lack of information or of control is actually to blame. In BP’s case, defeasibility manifests itself in statements that position the situation as an unknown or unthinkable—and, therefore, unpreventable—act. An example is a statement in which BP spokesperson Andy Gowers said:

“You have here an unprecedented event—never before have you seen a blowout at such depth and never before has a blowout preventer failed in this way. The unthinkable has become thinkable.”

In addition to defeasibility, positioning the situation as an accident portrays the events that led to the explosion and oil spill as external and unanticipated. In BP’s remarks, it is very clear about portraying the entire situation not only as unthinkable (defeasibility) but also as an accident. Once again, BP spokesman Gowers provided a relevant example when he stated: “We moved very rapidly to implement the approved response to the accident.”

The “accident” strategy is a powerful one, not because it denies an event took place or denies that harm was done, but because it eliminates responsibility for that event. As William Benoit stated in his book Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: “We tend to hold others responsible only for factors they can reasonably be expected to control” (76). By positioning the explosion and oil spill as an accident, BP is really saying that it could not reasonably have been expected to foresee or control the situation.

Closing Thoughts

BP’s apologetic rhetoric balances apologia strategies that evade responsibility for—and, at the same time, take credit for its (re)actions to—the oil spill in the Gulf. In addition to the implications the company’s rhetoric has on society, it also stands out as an interesting case study in the use of both apologia statements and visual rhetoric.

Through its statements, the company claims the causes were external, accidental, and unforeseeable—and, therefore, BP cannot reasonably be expected to control those causes. What the company can control (it claims) is its response to the “accident”—which is precisely what the company focuses on most, especially through the visual rhetoric on its website.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: The images used in this analysis were taken as screen captures from the BP website. In all instances where an image is shown, BP owns the copyright of the image and has stated (on its website) that such images may be reproduced as long as they are not used in a manner that is “prejudicial to BP, its officers or employees or any other third party.”

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