Companies play 'name that disaster' with eye on posterity

What do you call the largest oil spill in the history of the Gulf of Mexico?

The answer depends a lot on who you are.

There are those who call the disaster the "Deepwater Horizon spill." That includes the Coast Guard and Interior Department, which have named their joint investigation and their spill response command after the floating rig that exploded and sank, killing 11 men and starting the record spill.

It also includes BP PLC, whose blame-shifting investigation report issued yesterday (Greenwire, Sept. 8) begins with the title, "Deepwater Horizon." BP's press releases, though, often flip between "the Gulf of Mexico oil spill" and the cryptic "MC252 oil spill incident," an abbreviation of the physical location of BP's well.

But the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, Transocean Ltd., is trying out a new moniker. Apparently trying to pry loose the name of their vessel from the nameplate of the disaster, Transocean executives have taken to calling it "the Macondo well incident."


"Macondo" is the name BP gave the ill-fated well long before the blowout (an employee picked the name after winning a United Way fundraising contest.). Originally, Macondo was the mystical and doomed town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "100 Years of Solitude."

The name-shifting by Transocean and BP shows the kicking that is going on under the table among the companies involved with the blowout and spill. Chastened by the outraged reaction to their public finger-pointing in the spring, the companies are finding quieter ways to shift blame.

"It's part of a long-term strategy," said Matthew Seeger, a communications professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Those who control the naming of something control how it is perceived."

Seeger, author of "Communication and Organizational Crisis," compared the scuffle over the Gulf spill to the determined effort by the pork industry and the federal government to persuade the public to say "H1N1 virus" instead of "swine flu."

Millions of dollars are at stake as the companies square off for years of litigation and try to fend off government investigations. But experts say, if Transocean is really trying to change the name of the disaster to Macondo, it probably won't work.

"That ship has sailed, or -- more precisely -- that rig has sunk," said Mark Pfeifle, a messaging expert and former communications official in the George W. Bush White House. "'The Macondo Incident' sounds like a discarded title for a Robert Ludlum novel. No one will use the phrase."

But the term "Macondo" has gotten some traction since the spill. A review of major newspapers in Lexis-Nexis indicates that "Deepwater Horizon" and "spill" has come up 6,391 times since the April 20 explosion. The terms "Macondo" and "spill" have been used 813 times.

And "Macondo" is on the rise. Macondo was used 68 times in the first month of the spill, and 295 times in the fourth month, from July 20 to Aug. 19.

"Deepwater Horizon" was used 1,325 times in the first month. That rose to a high of 2,289 in the second month, and dropped to 997 in the fourth month.

A Transocean spokesman declined to comment.

The Obama administration has put the blame squarely on BP and commonly refers to the disaster as the "BP oil spill." But different agencies have used other names, and the names have evolved over time.

The federal response effort that was set up while the Deepwater Horizon was still burning was quickly named after the rig. The official BP-federal government partnership for spill response continues to bear the name "Deepwater Horizon Unified Command." The official investigation by the Coast Guard and the Interior Department also goes by "Deepwater Horizon."

When President Obama started asserting control over the spill in May, the White House referred to the disaster as the "BP Oil Spill." But it also began forwarding daily wrap-ups from the unified command titled "The Ongoing Administration-Wide Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill."

By late May, however, the title changed to "Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill." By June, someone had lopped off "Horizon," and it was referred to as the "Deepwater BP spill," a combination of names rarely used elsewhere, if ever.

"The name changes you have noted occurred as the incident response progressed," the unified command's public relations unit responded in an unsigned e-mail response to Greenwire. "Currently the labels [names] used by the Unified Area Command and National Incident Commander are Deepwater Horizon Response and Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill."

'Probably too late'

On its corporate website, BP's spill section is titled "Gulf of Mexico response." But company officials still often refer to the name of the spill by the name of its drilling contractor's rig. A report last week was titled, "Deepwater Horizon Containment and Response: Capabilities and Lessons Learned."

BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said his company's press releases often refer to the incident as "MC252," short for "Mississippi Canyon, Block 252," Interior's official name for the location of BP's lease. While MC252 is BP-centric, it is unlikely to be understood by the general public.

"We don't have a policy on the matter, other than simply trying to be accurate," Beaudo said.

BP's press releases have never referred to the disaster as Macondo.

A search on BP's website shows one instance in which the disaster is referred to as Macondo and that is a transcript of an investor call in which company Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said that the "the tragedy of the Macondo well explosion and subsequent oil spill has been a watershed for BP." Svanberg has a history of going off-message. He may be best remembered in the United States for saying, "We care about the small people."

Another six references to "Macondo" from the Internet search refer specifically to the well itself, not the full disaster.

Transocean's preference for "Macondo" is fairly new. As recently as May 25, Transocean referred to the spill as the "Deepwater Horizon incident" in a press release.

The change appears to date to the time of its second-quarter results. In the Aug. 4 press release about those results, the spill is referred to as the "Macondo well incident."

In a conference call the next day with analysts, Transocean executives pointedly referred to the spill as the "Macondo well incident," employing the word "Macondo" 19 times.

The next day, at least one analyst who had been on the call was quoted talking about "the Macondo incident."

But crisis communications experts say attempts to shift blame nearly always fail. And Transocean's name shift comes as the spill fades from the television news.

"It's out of the consciousness of everyday people now," said Dean Aguillen, a senior vice president at Ogilvy Government Relations. "I do think it's probably too late."

And name-shifting can only go so far in changing perceptions. After all, a spill by any other name is still 172 million gallons of crude oil fouling the Gulf.