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BP oil spill poses PR dilemma for nonprofits

May 19, 2010 |  8:10 am

Four years ago, when the giant oil company BP donated $1 million to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, the contribution seemed like a good deal for both an oil company trying to burnish its environmental credentials and a venue trying to draw more visitors.

Then, last month, a BP oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history. With the BP Sea Otter Habitat set to open this week, a potential feel-good moment has turned into a public relations landmine.

The aquarium is planning a press preview Thursday, but BP officials might not attend.

"They said they did not want to hurt the reputation of the institution," said Jerry Schubel, the aquarium's president. "They even asked, 'Would you prefer that we not be there?' I said, 'No. Without your support we could not have done this.' I hope they continue to support us."

Since the spill, aquarium officials have discussed how best to handle BP's sponsorship of the new venue, Schubel said, although he added that there had been no debate about removing BP's name. "That never occurred to me. We're comfortable about the course we have taken," he said. In the wake of the spill, the aquarium will host a forum this fall on ocean oil drilling, he said. "The challenge is, 'What can we learn from this going forward?'

Nonprofit institutions often face difficult decisions when big corporate givers hit highly publicized rough spots. One of the largest examples in recent years involved Enron, which was a major giver to cultural and educational charities.

Read the full story here.

--Mike Boehm and Louis Sahagun