Wednesday, June 30, 2010

And now, reporting for and on BP…

Hey, I’m in marketing.

True, I’m on the side of true dat, black and white, ‘what’s it do and how does it do it?’ marketing, but still…

But when you work in marketing, or PR, or corporate communications, there will be times when you have to put a little spin on the old curve ball that you’ve been handed.  (Try marketing an OS2-based product after OS2’s pictured on the cover of InfoWeek in a casket with a lily on top of it, why don’t you…)

Given a lemon, or even a bottle of ReaLemon juice, some days you just have to suck it up and make that pitcher of lemonade.

But you still want to be able to look yourself in the mirror every third day of so. Which means you need to avoid going out of your way to make a damned lemon meringue pie out of it.

Which to some extent is what BP has at its corps of in-house “journalists” doing.

There was a story on BP’s reporting (for an in-house rag called Planet BP, as well as on a blog by BP-styled “BP reporter” Tom Seslar on what’s going on down in the Gulf) in a WSJ Online post by Benoit Faucon last week.

The big howler that’s pointed out is certainly a lemon meringue pie in the face, given the environmental and economic devastation that BP’s slack standards and risky business model brought about. This from one of Seslar’s reports:

“Much of the region’s [nonfishing boat] businesses — particularly the hotels — have been prospering because so many people have come here from BP and other oil emergency response teams,” another report says. Indeed, one tourist official in a local town makes it clear that “BP has always been a very great partner of ours here…We have always valued the business that BP sent us.”

Okay. This has got to be among the Top Ten Most Ludicrous Spins placed on the disaster. (Right up with BP’s nobly  putting aside the money they make on the trace amount of oil – 20,000 – 30,000 barrels a day – they’re recovering, for the National Wildlife Foundation.)

So I was all set to join the punditry – including my MFN (most favorite newsperson) Rachel Maddow – and  heap on Tom Seslar, BP’s flack, for the nonsense spewing from his keyboard almost as rapidly as the endless crude gushing from the well. But then I read his blog, which is obviously on the spin cycle, but isn’t exactly deranged or imbecilic. (Although there is a completely corn-pone piece on his encounter with a wise old Houston cab-driver that, while it may not make the Top Ten Most Ludicrous Spins list, is definitely lame-o.) And then I read that he’s been with BP for nearly 40 years, and was a reporter for a few years before that.

Which probably puts Tom Seslar somewhere in his 60’s, so my naturally sympathetic tendencies naturally fell into place. Thus, instead of jumping on the this guy’s a bad journalist bandwagon, on which there’s no room, anyway, I decided to set up my own little bandwagon, and make up my own little story about Tom Seslar.

He’s pre-Lou Grant, but he definitely grew up wanting to be a journalist. Maybe he was inspired by Clark Kent. He was on the college newspaper, and hit his stride once he got his degree and landed a job with a paper that folks had actually heard of.

But that was tough going, and there was too much chasing ambulances for too little dough,and he wanted to settle down, make a bit more money, start a family. So he went over to corporate, where he got to work on things like the in-house print magazine (where he may have had a by-line), speeches for the VP of Whatever, and other communications pieces.

Sure, over the years he sometimes felt like the Willy Loman of the journalism world. Or like Terry Malloy, the Marlon Brando character in On the Waterfront, who “could have been a contender.” So Tom never won the Pulitzer Prize, or broke the big story, but he got to do what he likes to do, which is write. And so what if it was mostly drab and anonymous stuff on the guys who work on the new oil rig in the Hebrides; or the 10,000th BP gas station that opened in East Gum Shoe, Oklahoma; or the sweet little secretary who retired after 50 years. It was a living. He liked the company well enough to stay there for 37 years. And there’s always the novel in the desk drawer…

Tom’s not ready to retire quite yet – hey, he’s only in his 60’s. Maybe he’s got a kid still in college. Maybe he likes to work. Maybe he thinks it’s cool that after all those years on in-house stuff, he gets to write a blog. Maybe he sincerely believes that the company is trying to make good, and will make good. Hell, he’s spent his lifetime there. Does he want to even consider for a moment that he’s spent those 37 years working for the worst company in the history of mankind. Which, bad as it is, BP obviously isn’t. (It’s not like they’re producing Zyklon-B or using slave-laborers.)

Then all of a sudden, Tom Seslar gets his 15 minutes of fame. He’s the man on the scene. It’s almost like he’s an actual reporter. Then he finds himself being made fun of in the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the CJR (Columbia Journalism Review), and MSBNC.

Me, I feel for the guy.

He didn’t cause the Gulf debacle, and while BP is certainly being shown to be greedy, shoddy, and tone-deaf, it’s not as if Tom Seslar’s a good German just following orders. He’s just a guy working for a big, greedy, shoddy, tone-deaf company. (Plenty more where that came from.)

To quote from one of my favorite bards, Bill Morrissey:

He ain’t the last, he ain’t the first.
He ain’t the best, he ain’t the worst.

(Actually, I’m paraphrasing here. In Married for Money “he’s” really “she”.)

I may have this entirely wrong. Maybe Tom Seslar is a really slick, corrupt, terrible, dishonest person doing his best to cover up for BP in its hour of travesty. But I don’t think so.

He’s just a guy writing for a living. Ain’t no one reading his work who doesn’t know he’s working for BP. It’s not like his articles are appearing anywhere as neutral journalism. (At least I hope they’re not.) Sure calling himself a reporter sounds like a trope, but maybe that’s how he’s thought of himself all these years.

I’m not suggesting that we get off of  BP’s back, of course. That we have to stay on. But Tom Seslar? Why don’t we just leave the guy alone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know Tom. He is not the person you discribe. He worked for Amoco as the editor of their in house news. He showed me their last publication (which his staff kept from him) and a kind and thankful tribute was written about him. He is a kind person. Tom retired when Amoco and BP merged.