Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 120, Issue 4, pp 571–584 | Cite as

Beyond Legitimacy: A Case Study in BP’s “Green Lashing”



This paper discusses the issue of legitimacy and, in particular the processes of building, losing, and repairing environmental legitimacy in the context of the Deepwater Horizon case. Following the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010, BP plc. was accused of having set new records in the degree of divergence between its actual operations and what it had been communicating with regard to corporate responsibility. Its legitimacy crisis is here to be appraised as a case study in the discrepancy between symbolic and substantive strategies in corporate greening and its communication. A narrative analysis of BP’s “beyond petroleum”-rebranding and the “making this right”-campaign issued in response to the Gulf of Mexico disaster discusses their respective implications for (green) corporate change. Further, the question is addressed why BP’s green image endeavors were so widely accepted at first, only to find themselves dismissed as corporate greenwashing now. The study concludes that where a corporation’s “green narrative” consistently evokes established narratives, its legitimacy will be judged against narrative, rather than empirical truth. Thus, the narrative will be more willingly accepted as speaking for the issuing company’s legitimacy, irrespective of whether it reflects substantive greening or not.


Corporate environmental responsibility Impression management Narrative analysis Corporate communication Image crisis BP 


  1. Balmer, J. M. T. (2010). The BP Deepwater Horizon débâcle and corporate brand exuberance. Journal of Brand Management, 18(2), 97–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bansal, P., & Clelland, I. (2004). Talking trash: Legitimacy, impression management, and unsystematic risk in the context of the natural environment. Academy of Management Review, 47(1), 93–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bansal, P., & Kistruck, G. (2006). Seeing is (not) believing: Managing the impressions of the firm’s commitment to the natural environment. Journal of Business Ethics, 67(2), 165–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barthes, R., & Duisit, L. (1975). An introduction to the structural analysis of narratives. New Literary History, 6(2), 237–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boje, D. M. (2008). Narrative analysis. In A. J. Mills, et al. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of case study research. New Park, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  6. Boldt, K., & Student, D. (2010). Das letzte Gefecht. Manager Magazin, 7, 60–69.Google Scholar
  7. Bonini, S., et al. (2010). McKinsey Global Survey results: How companies manage sustainablity. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved Feb 10, 2011.
  8. Brown, A. D. (1994). Politics, symbolic action and myth making in pursuit of legitimacy. Organization Studies, 15(6), 861–878.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bush, M. (2010). BP print ads promise to ‘Make This Right’: Message, however, is undercut by ongoing spill. AdvertisingAge. June 02, 2010, no pagination. Retrieved Mar 18, 2011.
  10. Chazan, G., & Carlton, J. (2010). BP wasn’t prepared for leak, CEO says. The Wall Street Journal Online. May 14, 2010, no pagination. Retrieved May 16, 2011.
  11. Cherry, M. A., & Sneirson, J. F. (2011). Beyond profit: Rethinking corporate social responsibility and greenwashing after the BP oil disaster. Tulane Law Review, 85(4), 983–1038.Google Scholar
  12. Cline, S. (2010). BP under fire: Profit versus responsibility., June 15, 2010, no pagination. Retrieved Feb 9, 2011.
  13. Cole, C. A., & van Orman, C. (2008). Green Marketing: Avoiding unwanted attention from regulators and lawyers. WLF Legal Backgrounder, 1–4. Retrieved May 15, 2011.
  14. Crane, A. (1999). Are you ethical? Please tick yes or no. On researching ethics in business organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 20, 237–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dawson, D. (2005). Applying stories of the environment to business: What business people can learn from the virtues in environmental narratives. Journal of Business Ethics, 58, 37–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Eilperin, J. (2010). U.S. exempted BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study. The Washington Post, May 5, 2010. Retrieved May 15, 2011.
  17. Etter, M., & Fieseler, C. (2011). On relational capital in social media. Studies in Communication Sciences, 10(2), 167–189.Google Scholar
  18. Frey, D. (2002). How green is BP? The New York Times Online, Dec 8, 2002. Retrieved Mar 18, 2011.
  19. Gladwin, et al. (1995). Shifting paradigms for sustainable development: Implications for management theory and research. Academy of Management Review, 20(4), 874–907.Google Scholar
  20. Hannam, P. (2010). It’s time to re-brand green branding: Lessons from beyond petroleum. Bright Green Leadership, July 30, 2010. Retrieved Mar 18, 2011.
  21. Harlow, W. F., et al. (2010). BP initial image repair strategies after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Public Relations Review, 37(1), 80–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hart, P. D., & McGinn, D. (2010). Advice for BP’s reputation crisis: The way the company acts now will affect its image for decades to come. The Wall Street Journal Online, May 27, 2010. Retrieved May 16, 2011.
  23. Hebel, S. (2010). Im Wahn der Machbarkeit. Editorial, Frankfurter Rundschau, July 26, 2010, no pagination. Retrieved Aug 03, 2010.
  24. Heubaum, H. (2010). Beyond petroleum? Ditching BP’s early promise of sustainable energy. Current Intelligence. Retrieved Mar 18, 2011.
  25. Hicks, M. J. (2010). BP: Social responsibility and the easy life of the monopolist. American Journal of Business, 25(2), 9–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Holt, D., & Barkemeyer, R. (2012). Media coverage of sustainable development issues: Attention cycles or punctuated equilibrium? Sustainable Development, 20, 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Humphreys, M., & Brown, A. D. (2008). An analysis of corporate social responsibility at credit line: A narrative approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 80(3), 403–418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kearney, R. (2002). On stories. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  29. Kenney, J. (2006). Beyond propaganda. The New York Times Online, Aug 14, 2006, no pagination. Retrieved Feb 9, 2011.
  30. Koutsoubou, M. (2010). The use of narrative analysis as a research and evaluation method of atypical language: The case of deaf writing. International Journal of Bilingual Education & Bilingualism, 13(2), 225–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Krauss, C. (2001). Oil spill’s blow to BP’s image may eclipse costs. The New York Times Online, Apr 29, 2010. Retrieved Feb 9, 2011.
  32. Livesey, S. M. (2001). Eco-identity as discursive struggle: Royal Dutch/Shell, Brent Spar, and Nigeria. Journal of Business Communication, 38(1), 58–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lowry, R. (2010). The BP racket: The bigger and more complex government is, the more incentive corporations have to politicize themselves. National Review Online, June 22, 2010. Retrieved Mar 15, 2011.
  34. Macalister, T. (2002). Big oil’s green evangelist: Interview: Paula Banks, senior vice-president, social strategy and policy, BP. The Guardian Online, Apr 27, 2002. Retrieved Mar 18, 2011.
  35. Mufson, S. (2011). BP files suits against gulf rig owner and maker of blowout preventer. The Washington Post, Apr 21, 2011. Retrieved May 15, 2011.
  36. Mufson, S., & Kornblut, A. E. (2010). Lawmakers acuse BP of ‘shortcuts’. The Washington Post, June 15, 2010, 1–3. Retrieved May 16, 2011.
  37. Oliver, C. (1991). Strategic responses to institutional processes. The Academy of Management Review, 16(1), 145–197.Google Scholar
  38. Palazzo, G., & Scherer, A. (2006). Corporate legitimacy as deliberation. A communicative framework. Journal of Business Ethics, 66(1), 71–88.Google Scholar
  39. Preuss, L., & Dawson, D. (2009). On the quality and legitimacy of green narratives in business: A framework for evaluation. Journal of Business Ethics, 84(1), 135–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Reidel, M. (2010). Ölverseuchtes Image: BP: Der Ölmulti steht unter gewaltigem Druck. HORIZONT, 26, 19. Retrieved Feb 3, 2011.
  41. Rickens, C. (2010). Mehr Schein als Sein. Manager Magazin, 9, 70–78.Google Scholar
  42. Scherer, A. G., & Palazzo, G. (2011). The new political role of business in a globalized world—A review of a new perspective on CSR and its implications for the firm, gover-nance, and democracy. Journal of Management Studies, 48, 899–931.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Starkey, K., & Crane, A. (2003). Toward green narrative: Management and the evolutionary epic. Academy of Management Review, 28(2), 220–237.Google Scholar
  44. Steffy, L. C. (2010). Drowning in oil: BP and the reckless pursuit of profit. New York: Mcgraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  45. Suchman, M. C. (1995, July). Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches, The Academy of Management Review (Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 571–610). London: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  46. Vetter, J., et al. (2010). The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: Reflections from the communications point of view. MOL Group: Focus, 3, 12–26.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International Business, DHBW MannheimMannheimGermany
  2. 2.Organization Studies and Tilburg Sustainability CenterTilburg UniversityTilburgThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations