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Legacy of the BP spill: What's a reputation worth?

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Nevertheless, the public and CEOs are paying increasing attention to corporate reputation. For the first time in 10 years of surveying public attitudes toward business, Edelman's Trust Barometer this year found that "trust and transparency" were deemed as important as the "quality of services and products." An NYSE-Euronext survey of 325 CEOs worldwide found that three-quarters of firms had become more transparent about their risk policies.

But for BP, the road to image recovery is steep – and longer than it was for ExxonMobil. Exxon's stock endured a short-lived 10 percent dip in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. BP, by contrast, saw its stock price plunge 55 percent after the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon and has so far recovered only a little more than a third of that loss. It was kicked off the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and dropped by the FTSE4Good ethical index. A boycott BP page on Facebook has attracted more than 800,000 fans.

BP's string of disasters

Typically, negative public reaction fades as the media spotlight dims. But two disasters over the past five years hurt BP's image long before the Gulf spill. A 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, that killed 15 workers was followed a year later by a 300,000-barrel pipeline leak in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. When Tony Hayward took over in 2007, he promised to operate with "laser focus" on safety.

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