Just about the only historical analogue for BP's situation is that of ExxonMobil, which is still dealing with the legal and environmental fallout of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound. The company has already shelled out billions for that spill, but a 1992 settlement with Alaska and the federal government allowed the case to be reopened as damages are still assessed.
Patrick Parenteau, a law professor at the University of Vermont who works on environmental issues, said that determining ecosystem damage is a tricky prospect, given the natural unique ecosystem of the Gulf and the lack of knowledge about the spill in general. "As new evidence comes out, it's all going to be relevant," Parenteau said, "but the science tells us this could take decades before we know the full extent of the damage to the marine ecosystem."
The anniversary also comes amid an intense debate about the merits and dangers of offshore drilling. The Obama administration in January took steps to open areas of the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling, and energy companies are eyeing Arctic waters. With companies licking their lips to tap offshore reserves, the industry at large wants to promote an image that offshore drilling is safe, which means making sure people don't see pictures of an oil-coated Gulf and imagine the same happening off the Atlantic Coast.
So, five years out, is BP's PR strategy working?
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Sam Singer, who runs the San Francisco-based public affairs firm Singer Associates, said BP was doing what it could to stay ahead of the story, but that company-branded tweets and reports would only go so far.
"The advertising, the Web pages, these are all excellent tactics, but BP has been wholly unsuccessful because they're just not credible," Singer said. "If BP was genuinely being successful in the recovery, then some leaders in the Gulf or environmental groups would be telling that story with and for the company. And that's not happening."
Dorie Clark, an adjunct professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, said BP needs a third party to support its story, either a trusted environmental group or independent scientists. Clark said the company faces tremendous hurdles in getting back in the public's good graces, and it would take a show of commitment that the Gulf was getting better.
"Advertising doesn't make up for fundamental problems in their execution of duties as a company," Clark said.
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In the immediate aftermath of the spill, BP's outreach was widely mocked, especially with then-chairman Tony Hayward making public gaffes like saying he wanted his life back. A 2012 study found that consumers still had an aversion to BP compared to its competitors, and a 2014 follow-up revealed that the brand still ranked low on perceptions of warmth and competence.