Bernard Looney’s brave PR approach demonstrates that BP is listening

As Bernard Looney announces his intention to make global energy giant BP carbon neutral by 2050, we have an opportunity to see corporate re-invention in action. Appointed as CEO this month, his speech on Tuesday stated BP’s new purpose: ‘reimagining energy for people and our planet’ and an investment in zero and low-carbon energy. Although his statement marks a new vision for BP, it also marks something else: a new approach to public relations from one of the world’s behemoths.

Of course, BP is not the first oil and gas company to green up its credentials. Royal Dutch Shell announced a policy of off-setting carbon dioxide from customers’ fuel purchases last year. Total announced a carbon neutral fund in October to invest $400 million in technologies and innovative solutions to contribute to carbon neutrality.

Yet BP’s commitment is the most ambitious of the oil and gas giants so far. Its new approach is also marked by Bernard Looney’s willingness to take such a highly visible personal lead. He is breaking the mould as the first CEO of an oil supermajor with his own official Instagram account. Instagram is traditionally perceived as being a communication tool for the young so it is likely that Looney’s use of it is the result of his known enthusiasm for ‘reverse mentoring’ where younger employees mentor older executives, particularly in areas like technology and social media.

In fact, he joined Instagram last month while in his previous role as head of BP’s Upstream business. The two-way nature of Instagram opens up a Brave New World for corporate public relations because it encourages interaction. In his first post he invited people to be candid, saying ‘I consider honest and open discussion crucial’. He appears to be true to his word. Many of the comments posted in response were critical of BP and the man himself but have remained on the site for others to see, giving it a commendable authenticity

Now, in his role as CEO he has continued to post on Instagram, stating on Wednesday that he may not be able to reply to everyone but that he reads everything. The BP website also makes the point that he has spent time with ‘investors, partners, policymakers, NGOs, academics and the media around the world’. Bernard Looney’s press statements reinforce the point that the new direction taken by BP is because ‘we are listening’.

Although Looney has declared his intention to change the direction of BP and ‘reinvent’ it over time, he has not committed to any specific targets on exactly how this will be achieved. In answer to criticism on this from climate change activists, however, he has said that ‘we want a rapid transition’ and that ‘we’re starting with a destination. The details will come’. It may be assumed that, as the detailed plans unfold, Looney will continue to communicate through Instagram and other social media platforms.

Going forward, we will have the opportunity to watch the corporate re-invention of BP: from a global oil and gas giant recovering from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy to a company which has responded to the climate emergency with a forward-looking green agenda. With a CEO who is not only putting himself centre stage, but also encouraging dialogue, the PR message is clear: BP is listening.