SO BP - How creatives salvaged the reputation of the oil industry

by Tim Langford, tlcreative

An oil company faces a public relations disaster. The company is accused of a cover up and duplicity. The United States Government accuse it of treacherous and reckless behaviour. The mass media erupts in vitriolic headlines and the American public demands action. The company’s reputation and corporate image goes into a tailspin. It’s share price nosedives and the company faces a fight for survival. The CEO is called to account. Congress launches investigations and the Senate grills its Executives…

So far so BP in 2010? No. This is precisely the narrative that played out in 1942. If you are looking for a cornball peg you might be tempted to call it ‘SO BP’…

For BP read S.O. (Standard Oil New Jersey, then the world’s largest oil company, with revenues of $1 billion in 1942 – now Exxon Mobil). For Barak Obama read influential Senator Harry S. Truman (the 33rd President in 1945) who said of S.O. “I think this amounts to Treason”. For headlines read the front page of the New York Times describing Standard Oil as a ‘Nazi Collaborator’. Would you buy oil from a Nazi Collaborator in 1942?  ESSO, Standard Oil’s marketing brand, suffered as the American automobile public boycotted its products following the media fallout.  For the CEO of BP read the venerable John D. Rockefeller, Jr, who was on the receiving end of published letters that described him personally and his company as “an ally of Hitler, an economic enemy agent”.

So severe were the repercussions that internal records, from the period, show the company feared it would not survive the crisis intact.


During the crisis that has dogged BP, I wanted to write – based on research for a thesis I undertook 3 years ago – an article that might inspire BP to re-think and re-evaluate it’s corporate communications strategy. What follows – in my view – is a true story that has extraordinary parallels with today’s events…   


At the beginning of the American entry into the Second World War, Standard Oil (N.J.) was subject to a series of Senate hearings in March/April 1942. The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice alleged that the company had conspired with a German company, I.G Farben, in a cartel arrangement that had caused a severe shortage of synthetic rubber in the United States. A bitter irony, for the company, is that the charges were found to be without foundation. But in a climate of wartime patriotism where the war was being ‘sold’ to the American people as a ‘battle to save the American way’ Standard Oil was perceived as ‘anti-American’ regardless
of the facts.

Indeed Standard Oil, as the monolithic symbol of the petroleum industry, had suffered an image problem in the past. They had acquired a reputation, as a “monstrous monopoly” and been accused of corruption by investigative journalist Ida M. Tarbell in the 1900s, an expose that led to the governments anti-trust case and hence the breaking up of Standard Oil into regional groups (e.g. SONJ).

With echoes of the ‘received wisdom’ about the oil industry at large today, the image of the oil industry was framed in terms of “reckless irresponsibility, contempt for the law and as gamblers who profited at the expense of the American people.”


So how did the world’s largest oil company recover its reputation and confidence after this traumatic shock? How did it re-build its public relations and re-vitalise
It’s brand reputation?

Here is the first killer paradox with today’s BP story; the very epicentre of the current disaster, the State of Louisiana and some of the people impacted upon today were to become one of the key corner stones for Standard Oil’s systematic campaign to re-build it’s reputation in the 1940s. At the heart of it’s visual communications strategy would be an audacious corporate film, or an ‘industrial’ as they called them, (and arguably a world first: a full length motion picture for theatrical release) made by the filmmaker dubbed ‘The Father of the documentary’, Robert Flaherty, who called his film ‘Louisiana Story’(!) and set it in the pristine wilderness of the bayou…

And the second paradox? Whilst the recent artists insurrection and protest at BP sponsorship of Tate Modern has led to much controversy, and arguably more bad PR, it was artists – ‘left wing’ photographers and maverick, artistic, independent filmmakers (described as ‘rebels, bohemians and visionaries’) – who came to service the PR campaign of Standard Oil throughout the 1940s.

‘Artists’ – the visual creative’s of their day – and art were fundamental to Standard Oil’s redemption. But none of this would have been possible if Standard had not undertaken an imaginative, shrewd, root and branch re-think of their approach to public relations and corporate image.


With their reputation at rock bottom and fearing breakup Standard set out to transform not just their image but their entire public relations strategy. Starting in 1942 – in a wartime era of enormous, unpredictable socio-economic and political change – Jersey hired consultant Earl Newsom, the greatest PR man of his day. He instigated a systematic series of public opinion surveys, at home and abroad, that continued throughout the 1940s. The key findings of 1942 revealed:
- that “Jersey was disliked…because it was believed to be greedy”  and that all Standard Oil companies were assumed to be one concern and therefore still a monopoly, which reflected the earlier history of the company.
- the second key finding according to George Freyermuth, Jersey’s Director of Public Relations, demonstrated that -
“…early surveys showed clearly that the erudite, the academic, the educated people were able to make judgements…the more they knew about things in general, the less they liked the company…(the theory then and one still valid)…is that public opinion is established by opinion leaders…In general, opinion leaders of that time were supposed to be among the educated, the artistic and that kind of sophisticate.”

The conclusion they reached was that this target group was “more conscious of art than the public as a whole”.

Internal documents show a complete transformation in the company’s outlook:
in order for the company to survive intact and compete profitably, it needed to act and be seen to act in the “public interest”.

The mission Standard Oil embarked upon was to put in place a programme –
“for establishing effective communication with the public” which would aim to create a public impression that the company was “a good citizen…is open, friendly and communicative (and)…manages its affairs democratically” .
Jersey took the long view and invested in the visual media in order to influence this section of the public. Freyermuth hired in specialists Carl Mass (an art consultant), and in a key move, appointed Roy Stryker; a ‘liberal’ photographic curator, who had previously worked for the government on President Roosevelt’s New Deal creating a programme of work for creative artists in the 1930s.
Stryker was briefed to connect “with that part of the public with aesthetic interests” by employing documentary photographers to show the relationship of oil to community. Over the next few years these photographers were ‘embedded’ in communities in Texas and the southern states resulting in thousands of images (that remains the largest private collection to this day) that were systematically distributed by Standard’s PR Department in newspapers, magazines and via exhibitions.
But there was one other crucial, decision that Stryker and Freyermuth made in their visual communications strategy. It was to form a relationship with the legendary, independent filmmaker Robert Flaherty – a man written off by many of his peers as impossible to work with – who had, throughout his career, pursued his own ‘vision’ as an auteur largely dependent on corporate commissions. Indeed, as the progenitor of the ‘documentary’ his genre was funded by business; beginning with a French- Canadian fur trading company in the 1920s, who had sponsored Flaherty’s first silent ‘documentary’ Nanook of the North that became a worldwide cinema hit.

The outcome of the commission was Louisiana Story – a poetic fictional fable that had characteristics of a documentary – set in the ‘pristine’ wilderness of the swamp land and shot amongst the traditional local community; in a perverse twist of fate the very area threatened by the BP oil spill today. The film tells the story - from the point of view of a child – of the impact on the life of a Cajun family by visiting Texan oil wildcatters who discover oil on the families land. The local child star of the film, Joseph Boudreaux, and some of the people who were involved with the project are still resident in the area and presumably caught up in today’s story.

The eventual cost of the film was the most expensive corporate film ever made at $258,000.00 which equates to a staggering £2,373,861.00 today ($3,594,505.94). 


The closest current model we have for what transpired is the Shane Meadows fictional movie ‘Somers Town’, released in 2008, entirely funded by Eurostar.

The brief and contract that were negotiated with Flaherty were remarkable. It’s worth dwelling on some of the salient points because they evidence a carefully thought through, calculated approach that was consistent with the corporate mission –
- Flaherty should discover “in the romance of the oil drilling a theme so compelling that it would play the commercial theatres. In so doing it would create a general goodwill for the oil industry as a whole”.
In other words this was to be a ‘work of art’ that would pass ‘under the radar’ as entertainment in the cinema.

- The client did not want a typical ‘industrial film’. According to SO’s publicity;
“we had to translate our thesis (for which read the Brief) the impact of science on a simple rural community – into terms of people…To personalise the impact of the industry”

- There was to be no evidence of branding or sponsorship within the film – no titles, credits, logo’s. All of this was completely against the grain of corporate sponsorship at the time.

- Flaherty was to retain all rights in the movie and had a written guarantee of autonomy.

- Further insight into why Standard Oil sought out the film-maker is contained in an internal company memo of 1948. Page 1 of “Suggested Plan of Exploitation”, suggests a publicity campaign focusing on “…exploiting Flaherty’s international reputation as a film-maker…” In short, this was to be packaged as a ‘Robert Flaherty’ film and the corporate sponsor would ride on their coattails.

- The client evinced complete confidence in the creative and understood his nature. From the evidence seen by the author, they played on his vanity and his need for independence.
The evidence is that the client met its corporate communications objectives through ‘buying’ the Flaherty brand in order to enhance their own reputation. They ‘bought’ their channel of communication with their key target audience via Robert Flaherty’s capacity to deliver a cinematic audience. In sum, Flaherty’s reputation opened the doors of the cinema to Standard Oil’s messages.

As a Robert Flaherty Production it might be argued that the roles of sponsorship and,
therefore the relationship, were in one sense being reversed. The director via his reputation for integrity and artistry was lending his name to the client’s message. The absence of corporate branding was a calculated strategic decision to remove the overt elements that the key target audience were resistant to, in order to maximize the covert messaging of the film. It also resulted in an unencumbered wide distribution as a piece of cinematic art and entertainment.


The film became a high-profile talking point in the arts world: receiving a world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival to an audience of 2000, winning the Venice prize for ‘lyrical valour’, it’s composer won the Pulitzer for the music score. It was initially released in the Art House circuit in the USA (again evidence of the very targeted messaging that Standard Oil wanted), then it went on general release from 1952 onwards when it was re-titled ‘Cajun’.

A Standard Oil report to the company’s directors, issued in1949, assessed the impact of the film at home and abroad:
- It estimated that 30 million American readers had received a favourable impression of the oil industry “and its employees in relation to the community”.

- It was shown in 425 theatres, increasing by two a week.

- The company had been identified with the film in 19 out of 25 magazines and 27 out of 35 newspapers. Some eight national magazines and
four major newspapers had “commented on Jersey’s foresighted public relations policy in sponsoring the film.”

- The awards and festivals opened the doors to the “ leaders in art and cultural groups, society and business leaders…Many new public relations contacts were made.”

- Whilst in Britain, the “value to the company” came from “special showings”:
at which “contacts were made with opinion leaders in the fields of government, business, art and letters, press and radio.”


Could the story of Standard Oil inspire BP to take a redemptive, fresh, radical approach to re-building it’s reputation in the USA and Louisiana in particular?

It arguably provides the evidence that out of a very similar morass BP could learn some lessons for a future strategy that is based on aligning the interests (and ability) of the creative sector with BP’s corporate PR. But only if BP will take up the ‘Standard’ and build a partnership with creatives that is anything like as far-sighted, imaginative and innovative as Standard Oil’s.

Tim Langford, Director/Writer