BP pushes black faces to forefront of mea culpa ad campaign

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There’s an adage that says you don’t “fight fire with fire,” but that’s exactly what BP officials seem to be doing these days while trying to repair their immensely tarnished image.

Since their unprecedented environmental disaster on the Gulf Coast nearly two years ago, BP Oil has been on a major course of damage control to restore their image and quiet the complaints of the thousands of coastal residents left devastated by the oil spill.

Besides the pending litigation against their oil spill fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg by Mississippi’s Attorney General Jim Hood, there are varying opinions as to whom BP has put on the frontline as the face of their recovery, and why.

To cater to an unforgiving American public, BP has pushed two of their long-term employees, Darryl Willis and Iris Cross, to the fore of their ad campaigns, both of whom vow BP’s continuous support to “make things right” for people living on the Coast.

Willis, a 20-year veteran of BP, said he “volunteered” to help with the Gulf Coast recovery because he “understood” the plight of his fellow southerners.

“I was born and raised in Louisiana,” Willis said in one commercial. “This is my home,” he says looking into the camera. “BP has got to make this right and that’s why BP is here.”

Willis hasn’t lived in Louisiana for at least 10 years.

In a separate commercial, Cross, in her 29th year as a BP employee, tells viewers, ‘I was born in New Orleans and my family still lives here.’ ‘My job is to listen to the shrimpers, the fishermen, the hotel and restaurant workers and find ways to help…That means working with communities.’”

In another ad for BP, Cross attempts to show compassion and sympathy for oil spill victims, while she — in what appears to be a staged effort – touches the arm or shoulder of a person in distress.

But the irony is that while Willis and Cross, who are both black, come off as the poster children of BP’s commitment to the community, James Crowell, president of the Biloxi, Miss., Chapter of the NAACP, said it seems BP has done everything except work with the black community.

“Both Darryl Willis and Iris Cross were real active when the BP oil spill first happened,” Crowell said. “They were out here talking about ‘We’re going to make it better.’ But if you ask the majority of black folks out here on the coast of Mississippi what has BP done for them, they’ll tell you. ‘Nothing.’”

Crowell, who has lived in Biloxi 38 years and has been the president of the Biloxi chapter for 17 years, said he and some of the coastal residents have been working with the national branch of the NAACP to resolve their issues with BP.

“Jacqui Patterson from the Baltimore branch of the NAACP did an extensive study on the effects of the BP oil spill,” Crowell said. “Jacqui came down here and lived on this coast for about a year…while she was doing her research, and we presented the report to BP. We didn’t get a response and we thought we would.”“They [BP] haven’t made any efforts which they have explicitly attributed to our study,” Patterson said. “They have contacted us regarding wanting to partner on working with historically black colleges and universities on conducting research in the region as part of the funding touted in those same commercials. However, they have not followed through, unfortunately, in spite of our consistent follow up with them. Otherwise, I have not seen much in the way of targeted efforts to intentionally address the differential impact of the oil drilling disaster in African-American communities.”

Crowell said Biloxi has about 47,000 residents and about 20 percent of those are black. Before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Biloxi was the third largest city in Mississippi. That distinction has now fallen to Hattiesburg.

According to Patterson’s study, and Crowell agreed, those impacted the most by the oil spill disaster on the Coast have been black people.

“The peninsula is where our folks are,” Ya-Sin Shabazz of Biloxi said in Patterson’s study. “There are 15,000 residents on the Peninsula, primarily African-Americans and Vietnamese. Most white residents moved West or North. Most of the people there couldn’t afford to move after Katrina…Peninsula residents are surrounded on both sides by water. If that water gets polluted, they have nowhere to go. They can smell the oil now so imagine when they are literally surrounded by it!”

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on April 20, 2010, that killed 11 crewman and for almost three months spewed – by some estimates – between 94 and 184 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP has minimized, excused and finally admitted their responsibility.

BP said they have set aside $20 billion dollars in an independent claims fund, but Crowell said Vietnamese fishermen have benefited the most from that money.

“After the Croatian people, some white people and the French people who were fishermen…went to other areas, the Vietnamese came in here and essentially took over the fishing area,” Crowell said. “And it’s the Vietnamese that have been compensated and they should be, rightly so, because they deserve it. Fishing was their occupation and they were displaced. But it seems like BP’s efforts have been focused primarily on them, but BP hasn’t looked at what’s happened within the black community.”

Crowell said a lot people have been hindered by the claims process because it’s too complicated and calls for records and receipts that many local fishermen – mostly black – don’t have.

After numerous oil spill victims continued to complain that BP denied their claims without proper review, Attorney General Jim Hood asked Kenneth Feinberg for full access to GCCF claims-records to determine if the procedures for processing claims comply with fair trade practices.

Feinberg refused.

Hood filed a lawsuit to see the records and will appear in court in Mississippi this week.

And yet, BP says in their commercials, ’[We] have got to make this right.’

Cross, again, attempts to reassure the American viewer, “BP has taken full responsibility” for what’s happened in the gulf, “and this includes keeping you informed,” she says. (Cross was contacted for this story but could not be reached for comment.)

BP has now put a spin on their ad campaign by getting local coastal residents such as Rip Daniels and Karen Sock, to help them restore tourism on the coast.

Daniels, who runs WJZD radio and owns the Almanett Guest House in Biloxi, has twice testified against BP before Congress about the oil spill. Daniels said he was sought out for BP’s newest commercials because he’s president of the Harrison County Tourism Commission.

“It is devastating what BP did. It never should have happened,” Daniels said. “But we still have to live here. Tourism is our number one industry. And it was important for me that we invite people to the Coast and get them to keep coming back.”

In his commercial, Daniels said he was determined to show tourists all the “amenities” Mississippi has to offer, not to “exonerate BP” or praise their restoration efforts. In fact, Daniels never mentions BP or the oil spill in his ad.

“My advertisement was not about vindication,” Daniels said, “but more about inviting people to come down here to the Coast because that’s what we need. I put that concept together. BP was going to do something completely different. But what I wanted was to show the blues band performing, people eating — to show what actually happens on the Coast,” he continued. “At any given time here you’ll find a tailgate party, people sitting on the bayou or on the carport with a big pot and a boat rolls up and folks bring something to put in the pot. It’s eat, greet and be merry.”

Karen Sock, CEO of Sock Enterprises, Inc., moved to Biloxi from New Orleans 10 weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and has spent more than 30 years in the tourism industry. She’s been tapped to head Jimmy Buffet’s, Margaritaville, the latest casino under construction on the Coast.

“I was sought out for this commercial by BP because I am the secretary of the Gulfport Business Counsel,” Sock said.

Sock also has an extensive history in the gaming industry having worked for Harrah’s Entertainment and Grand Casino Biloxi for 16 years. Unlike Daniels, Sock said she did follow the script given to her by BP for her ad.

“Their focus was to boost tourism on the Coast,” Sock said. “And I have heard from all kinds of people black, white, young and old that have seen those ads and they can see that BP has made a significant attempt to promote tourism. And tourism is a very important part of Mississippi’s economy and my home economy in the gulf of Mississippi.”

BP has used several other locals in what they’ve termed their “My Gulf” ads from each of the states most affected by the oil spill: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. BP openly admitted they specifically chose small business owners, community leaders and “tourism ambassadors” for these “My Gulf” campaigns. At least four of the other locals featured are white, and none of the participants were paid.

Sock said that while she can only speculate as to what BP has done for the black community monetarily, it’s clear to her that BP is making a huge effort to help bring tourists, discouraged by the oil spill, back to the Gulf Coast.

“They’ve made a commitment to do these ads nationwide and they’ve done a great job in that regard,” she said.