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BP's Iris Cross starred in two disaster PR campaigns

April 20, 2011, 4:03 pm

Last fall, Iris Cross beamed into millions of homes, the friendly BP worker hailing from New Orleans who assured TV viewers that the oil giant won’t stop cleaning up the worst oil spill in U.S. history “until we make this right.”

She became the very public face of BP, a soothing contrast to former CEO Tony Heyward, whose PR gaffes cemented public opinion against the oil company.

This is not the first time Cross sought to soothe public anger from a BP disaster. One of her efforts in 2006 so angered a judge that BP was accused of jury tampering and threatened with fines and contempt charges.

Court records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity show that Cross and her boss admitted in testimony five years ago that they signed thousands of letters to Texans aimed at polishing BP’s image — just days before jury selection was to begin in a civil trial over a 2005 BP refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and injured scores more.

The presiding judge, court transcripts show, derided the letter-writing campaign as a “stunt” clearly designed to influence jurors.

“We have a jury panel coming in today. And it would take an absolute idiot not to figure that out,” Galveston County, Texas Judge Susan E. Criss chided BP during a hearing Nov. 6, 2006 called to address the impact of the letters on jury selection.

“This is so far out of line,” Criss scolded.

BP declined to allow the Center to interview Iris Cross.

The tale of the 2006 BP public relations campaign was overshadowed by the devastation of the Texas City refinery and the subsequent litigation that forced BP to pay at least $2 billion to compensate victims and $137 million in federal fines.

But one of the lawyers in the case says the 2006 and 2010 PR efforts provide an unprecedented window into the multimillion dollar efforts BP uses to gloss over the human, environmental and economic damages caused by the two massive disasters.

“I wouldn’t let Charles Manson date my daughter because I don’t presume he’s rehabilitated and I’m not sure BP’s been rehabilitated either,” said Brent Coon, the lawyer who headed the civil suit against BP in the refinery case. “They had a corporate-wide culture that is deficient with respect to following the law and deficient with respect to safety.”

The TV ads describe Cross as working for “BP Community Outreach.” Her current resume lists her as “General Manager, External Relations” with BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, but she has a long history as a public relations professional.

Cross’s career began with oil company Amoco, where she had worked primarily in the public relations department from 1981 until the 1999 merger with BP. After the merger, she spent four years in BP’s Houston Westlake office as “director of community relations.” After taking two years off following a marriage, she returned to BP full time in June of 2005 as director of community relations for BP Texas City.

Her appearance in at least two commercials was part of a PR campaign designed to repair BP’s public image in the wake of the worst oil spill in American history. Between the start of the spill and the end of August, BP spent over $93 million on advertisements, three times what the oil giant spent in April through July 2009. It’s a number that outraged lawmakers.

“BP’s extensive advertising campaign that is solely focused on polishing its corporate image in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster is making people angry. As small businesses, fishermen, and mom and pop motels, hotels and restaurants struggle to make ends meet, they are bombarded by BP’s corporate marketing largess day after day,” Rep. Cathy Castor, D-Fla., said in September. “While BP certainly has the right to advertise, its approach has been insensitive to the taxpayers and business owners harmed by the Deepwater Horizon blowout.”

It’s unclear exactly how much of that money was dedicated to ads featuring Cross, but they were regular features on TV throughout the late summer and early fall. “I was born in New Orleans. My family still lives here,” she says in one ad .

“BP is going to be here until the oil is gone, and the people and businesses are back to normal — until we make this right.”

Contentious hearing
At the center of the 2006 controversy was a set of letters sent out by BP days ahead of jury selection in the refinery trial. The letters were addressed to either “BP Retiree” or “BP Texas City Neighbor,” including local businesses and community leaders. Although the letters shared identical language, some batches of letters were signed by Iris Cross while others were signed by Neil Geary, her supervisor.

The one page letter sought to address “reports in the media about what happened at BP Texas City” and claimed that the company has “made substantial changes and improvements” at Texas City.

“We have made substantial changes and improvements at BP Texas City and are in action on a program of multiple recommendations contained in BP’s final accident investigation report and other sources” the letter said. “BP has acknowledged that it was aware of infrastructure and safety culture problems at the refinery prior to March 23, 2005 and we have been in action in response. BP is working to improve plant integrity, safety culture and process safety management at all BP-operated facilities in order to prevent such accidents in the future.”

Included with the letter was a “fact sheet” that addressed “key issues raised in media reports” and a copy of a company newsletter that Cross urged readers to share with their family.

The fact sheet claimed that “Maintenance spending [at Texas City] also was higher than the industry average per barrel of throughput,” while also noting BP acknowledges that while there were safety risks at Texas City, “it is not accurate to say that BP was not addressing these issues.” The fact sheet concluded that “BP will spend

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