BP's PR campaign fails to clean up reputation after Gulf oil spill

Critics remain unconvinced by oil giant’s efforts ahead of annual general meeting and one-year anniversary

A bird covered with oil is rescued from the waters of Barataria Bay after the Deepwater oil spill

A bird covered with oil is rescued from the waters of Barataria Bay, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in June 2010. BP claims that no oil has flowed into the Gulf since it repaired the leak on 15 July. Photograph: Gerald Herbert

The hatches have been battened down at BP headquarters in London as angry shareholders, artists, campaigners and people from communities affected by its oil spills converge on Thursday’s annual general meeting – which comes just days before the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The company, which spent more than $90m on PR in the first three months of the spill, is saying nothing publicly but has been running advertisements in the national press this week. In the adverts, BP claims that no oil has flowed into the Gulf since it repaired the leak on 15 July, and says it has spent more than $13bn (£7.9bn) on the clean-up. What’s more, it says, it has committed $500m to fund scientific studies on the impact of the spill, and more than $280m to projects including wildlife rescue and the restoration of habitats.

This cuts no ice whatever with Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation fisherwoman from the Texas Gulf coast. She was recently arrested for protesting against BP and faces a prison sentence of 800 days. Wilson is in London to try to present the “Black Planet award” to BP in person. She says:

“I am here to call BP to account for its actions in the Gulf – for the oil spill, the lies, the cover-ups, the skimping on safety, the deaths, the non-existent documents, the ‘swinging door’ with regulators. I am coming to articulate the anger of thousands of Gulf coast residents whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed while the BP board continues to prosper.”

Direct action groups including Art Not Oil, Climate Camp London, Climate Rush and London Rising Tide are also deeply unimpressed by BP’s PR. They plan to publicly embarrass the Tate Modern gallery, the British Museum and many other major cultural institutions in protest at their sponsorship deals with BP. Flash mobs and a series of protests are planned to damage the BP brand.

It also disgusts Antonia Juhasz, the author of Black Tide, one of the first major books to examine the Gulf spill. Juhasz has spent a year talking to the industry, affected communities, scientists and others and says she has been shocked by what she saw and found. She accuses BP of lying – not just to the public, but to the regulators – about how unprepared the world’s fourth biggest company was for an offshore spill of this size.

“The regulators let them lie, but they said they could handle a spill 300,000 barrels a day. At its worse this was 80,000 barrels a day, yet look what happened. Industry just had not invested. It still does not know the effects of the dispersant and the impact of the spilt oil. It did not know how to clean it up, let alone track it. Everything was guesswork. No one knows just how much oil is still down there. What is clear is that people are still suffering and the Gulf is not clean.”

She was shocked too, she says, not just by BP’s huge PR machine – which fell apart in the crisis as President Barack Obama and his administration weighed in and the scale of the disaster became apparent – but by the way the wider industry tried to isolate BP and make the disaster appear to be a one-off event.

“The industry tried really hard to convince the public that this was a fluke, that it was isolated and that it happened because of a foreign company. They had a very orchestrated strategy.”

After a year investigating the spill, she is convinced there will be others:

“There are now 148 other deep water wells in the world. They are going everywhere. Yet the ecological and financial costs of failure are catastrophic. The lessons just have not been learned. Not a single piece of new legislation has come out of it.”

And she’s not impressed by BP’s claim that it is spending $500m to fund scientific studies.

“BP is requiring scientists to sign three-year confidentiality agreements. The research should be made public immediately. It should be publicly accountable with no strings attached.”

The last straw, she says was when BP announced that it was moving into Canada to exploit the dirtiest of all oils – the tar sands. “What is really shocking is that BP has recovered so well,” she says.