The Gulf Coast Oil Spill Extending the Theory of Image Restoration

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Public Relations Review 37 (2011) 226–232

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Public Relations Review

The Gulf Coast oil spill: Extending the theory of image restoration discourse to the realm of social media and beyond petroleum Sidharth Muralidharan ∗ , Kristie Dillistone, Jae-Hwa Shin The University of Southern Mississippi, United States

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The explosion of Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon, an oil-rig licensed to BP, set in motion a chain of unfortunate events that led to BP’s ruptured oil well disgorging millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Since the spill, the corporate image of BP has been severely challenged. The company has used many strategies to preserve and restore the corporate image, and has sought means to mitigate the intensity of the ongoing threat to individuals, businesses, and a delicate ecosystem. Among these means are interacting with individuals and interest groups through social media channels. Benoit’s (1995) theory of image restoration discourse posits various strategies corporations use to restore their image during a crisis. The BP crisis presents an opportunity to extend the theories of image restoration to the realm of social media. Results of a content analysis showed that corrective action was the dominant image restoration strategy employed by BP in their Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr pages. A high presence of negative emotions revealed that corrective action was not an effective means of swaying public opinion in favor of BP’s efforts. Dominant themes in all four social media channels and audience comments in terms of dominant issues and emotions on Facebook and YouTube were also analyzed. © 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Article history: Received 4 February 2011 Received in revised form 19 April 2011 Accepted 25 April 2011 Keywords: Image restoration discourse Social media BP Gulf Coast oil spill

1. Introduction On April 20, 2010, a blast on Transocean’s offshore oil-rig ‘Deepwater Horizon’ – a platform licensed to BP – suddenly exploded. The explosion killed eleven workers and triggered a mammoth oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico greatly affecting the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The spill, which may prove to be the largest in U.S. history, spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. The negative impact on the environment, especially birds and aquatic life appears to have been significant, as has tourism and local business activities in the affected regions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) estimated as much as 210,000 gallons leaked each day into the ocean. The BP oil spill has surpassed its predecessor, Exxon Valdez, in terms of the amount of oil being discharged into the waters. BP has taken responsibility for the spill, though they have blamed subcontractors such as Transocean and Halliburton, and has spent billions of dollars in compensation and clean-up efforts. Since the first news break, BP has come under fire from many directions, including the federal and state governments, activists and environmental groups, and ordinary citizens—especially inhabitants of the Gulf Coast. Criticism was focused on the spill’s damage as well as the company’s record of bypassing safety measures and violating environmental laws. During times of distress, as a corporation’s image comes

∗ Corresponding author at: School of Mass Communication and Journalism, The University of Southern Mississippi, 118 College Dr. #5121, Hattiesburg, MS 39406, United States. Tel.: +1 601 266 4282. E-mail address: (S. Muralidharan). 0363-8111/$ – see front matter © 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2011.04.006

S. Muralidharan et al. / Public Relations Review 37 (2011) 226–232


under threat and strict scrutiny, it engages in image restoration discourse. BP has used traditional media outlets to...
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