Editors comment

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Nobody’s perfect – unfortunately

History has a habit of every now and then placing you right plum in its crucible. And so I found myself in Miami during June’s SP Richards’ ABC show. Flying down the Atlantic coast, I took half an hour to read through Sky’s inflight news service. I wanted to check the football scores – it would be soccer for the next week, of course – and I also wanted to find out what was happening in the rest of the world.

Dominating – as it had prior to my trip — was the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The British press was getting into an utter stupor at what it felt were anti-British comments by Barack Obama towards BP.

Ever since Tony Blair left to join the Jimmy Carter diplomatic service, there’s has been agitation that the UK and US ‘special relationship’ has deteriorated to the point where Obama no longer answers if the caller ID has a +44 prefix on it. It didn’t help that Obama appeared to ignore Blair’s successor Gordon Brown at a summit of world leaders earlier this year. Despite the notoriously awkward Brown behaving like the President was the only person he recognised at a wedding reception.

If watching your PM being shunned by the world’s most powerful man wasn’t enough, to then have one of your biggest companies declared public enemy number one was too much to bear for some newspaper publishers. Especially the right wing papers that, like BP, sought to move the blame to US drilling company, Transocean.

As I touched down in one of the states most affected by the spill, I had one feeling: embarrassment. Not because BP, or as Obama likes to say with his hands vertical and bouncing off the Oval Office desk – British Petroleum – originates from my home country. But because Obama had made me guilty by association.

Again not with BP, but with my peers in the British press who had turned a natural disaster into a political incident with the kind of jingoistic rhetoric they normally save for the England football team during World Cups.

BP’s initial decision to defend the indefensible could prove incredibly costly. Besides the billions of dollars it will now pay to rebuild the Gulf – should its share price recover and it manages to fight off the baying wolves of rival Exxon – it will still be burdened by higher financial costs in the US for years to come. Choosing to blame US company Transocean before showing remorse was a political and public disaster, potentially devasting a decade of oil industry PR.

The Deepwater disaster also reminds us that a competitor holds your own public goodwill in its hands. For instance, as Office Depot tries to stem the flow of bad publicity that follows its stream of refunding (including June’s $5.9 million in Florida), the pressure is already building on dealers looking to break into the contract scene in the US.

Could this holy grail turn into a poisoned chalice laced with razor-thin margins, crippling requirements and suffocating scrutiny? Let’s hope that schemes like TriMega’s Point Nationwide help prove otherwise.