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The language of the oil spill

David Taylor, a member of our writing team, recently helped us put together an analysis of BP's 'oil spill language' using word clouds of two press releases surrounding the problem. It's just been published in this month's Communicate Magazine – here it is again!

However cack-handed and insensitive BP’s media response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may have been initially, these two announcements show that by mid-July the company was utterly focused on the source of all the trouble.

There’s none of that ‘drop-in-the-ocean/I want my life back’ gaucheness that got CEO Tony Hayward into such a pickle back in May. It’s now all about the “well”.

The first cloud is from BP’s July 19 press statement describing tests on the cap it had installed over the leaking well four days previously. At last it looked as if the oil had finally stopped gushing from the ruptured well. Even President Obama welcomed the announcement as a “positive sign” – probably the nicest thing he’d said about BP since vowing to “kick its ass” back in June.

Even so, BP’s press statement is careful not to make any rash claims. Prominent words like “containment”, “approximately”, “expected” and “continues” signal the company’s reticence.

The language is busy and scattered liberally with dynamic words such as “activities”, “steps”, “operations”, “capturing” and “response”, reinforcing the message that BP’s on the case.

The three dominant words – “well”, “oil” and “containment” – sum it up perfectly. It’s all about keeping the lid on the situation and it’s clear that BP know it’s not out of the woods yet. The words “certain” and “results” just about make the cloud – but then again, so does “aircraft”.

The second cloud tells a different story. It’s from BP’s August 4 announcement that there had been encouraging progress with the “static kill” operation to plug the well with mud and seal it for good with cement.

August 4

A lot had happened since the July 19 statement: Tony Hayward had done the decent thing by announcing that he was going to step down as CEO; US scientists had made the surprise announcement that the massive slick from the ruptured well was dispersing faster than expected; and the capped well itself (which had been left unmonitored for several days while a tropical storm blew over) was holding fast.

The language in this cloud is less cautious, more assured. We’re still totally focused on the well – but look at those other big words: “static” and “kill”. These are blunt, uncompromising terms that suggest BP knows it’s got this problem under control.

OK, the term “static kill” has a specific meaning in the oil industry. But whoever first coined the phrase clearly wanted to convey an uncompromising message of finality.

The language in this cloud is less complicated than that of July 19. The four most important words (“well”, “kill”, “static” and “relief”) stand out clearly from the body of the text. In the July 19 cloud, there’s a steady gradient from the most prominent words to the least prominent, with “approximately”, “test” “gas”, “systems” bulking out the cloud.

These middle-ranking words are sparser in the later cloud and there’s a bigger gap between them and the four key words. They’re also mostly technical: “cement”, “pumping”, “mud”, “drilling”.

But the most striking feature of the August 4 cloud isn’t what it contains but what it doesn’t contain. The word “oil”, which screams out of the July 19 cloud, is missing. And it didn’t just miss the cloud; it’s doesn’t even appear in the statement. Not once.

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