2:41 PM

Guest Post: The BP Oil Spill, Part 1

Here is the first student guest post, presented by our research team from last week.  Enjoy!

We don't want to start out saying that the BP oil spill is all President Obama's fault, but this does summarize our findings of our study.  It would be absolutely absurd to state that the BP oil spill was a result of anything that President Obama did, but it seems that the communication channels somehow led to this kind of response.  

So what did we set out to do?  After much difficulty and modification, we decided to examine how well the communication chain, initiating with BP's press release regarding testing of the well, worked in getting the message across to the general public.  As it turns out, this is a bit of a tricky question to answer.  So how did we decided to go about it?  Well, we had to put numbers to exactly how the general public received the information.  The information in the press release was communicated to the public through the mass media, and specifically in our case through a CNN article in which people were able to comment on what they thought of the article.  These comments allowed us to measure what the reaction to the information was.

Just to give you an idea what we were looking at, perhaps a brief summary of the articles is in order.  The BP press release was put out to tell about the test that was taking place on the well.  It very briefly said that the well was capped to test the integrity of the well.  The testing was stated to last no longer than 48 hours.  This was the basic gist of the press release, but then CNN got a hold of it.

CNN quickly stated the basic facts, but it was easy to tell that the premise of the BP press release was not where CNN was trying to go with the article.  In essence, the article became a human interest story.

"While I am pleased that oil no longer is flowing freely into the Gulf of Mexico, there is more work to do to help families, businesses and communities on the Gulf Coast as they recover from this disaster."
As seen here, the article brings in the human interest story of the BP oil spill.  It also begins to give false hope about the spill ending, though BP made sure that it was clear this was just a test and not a permanent capping of the well.  This is simply an inaccurate fact, but seems to make the issue more press worthy.

This made it interesting to look how people received the information.  Really we found that many people did not receive the information put out by BP about the test.  The comments on the article turned into a debate about the handling of the whole oil spill, though this was really not the subject of the press release.

As far as putting numbers to the comments, we broke the comments up into several categories, namely whether they were positive, negative, neutral, or not applicable.  We choose theses categories initially to test whether people were receiving the messages put out by BP in a positive way or not.  Reading the first 200 comments on the CNN article we found:
Positive:  5%
Negative:  41.5%
Neutral:  10%
Not Applicable:  43.5%

From the results it easy to see that people generally have a negative outlook on BP's handling of the oil spill, but we are not sure that the way we set up this experiment really gave us the meaningful information that we wanted.  It turned out that it is difficult to classify a comment as simply positive or negative.  Many of the comments were about different issues that what the article was even talking about.  We did not really account for the outside bias that was previously created toward the situation when doing our analysis.  It would have been more meaningful to break up the categories further into section that described exactly what the people were being positive and negative about.  It wasn't just the testing that they were frustrated about.  Actually, conversation about the testing of the well accounted for a very small percentage of the comments.

One thing is for sure though.  The communication chain is not direct in communicating what the original source intended, nor do we think that it should be held to this standard.  The concerning part is that the intended message put out by BP did not make it to the public.  That was the most conclusive part of this study.  It is hard to make any other kind of statement about the communication of the press release because the communication chain was so overrun by outside bias being brought to the article.  What is news worthy and the intended message do not always coincide although.  This is definitely the case with CNN's transmission of the information.

This tells us a lot about how press releases should be thought about.  We can no longer depend on the media to put out the original message, but instead must be willing to take it into our hands as to getting our message across.  We have to be advocates in communicating to the public what needs to be communicated!

Posted by – Aaron Ackerman, Carl Blum, JD, Dan

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