Home Communication Semiotics and Verbal Texts: How the News Media Construct a Crisis
Findings from the BP Data
Table 10.1 shows the fall of the occurrence of metonyms from 9.7 per 000 words in 2010 to 3.2 instances per 000 words in 2012. I follow the convention of referring to metonyms in the format “X FOR Y” and in capitals.
The pattern of metonymy in the 2010 data is relatively straightforward. Metonymic expressions (which can be words or phrases) occur nearly ten times for every 000 words, as Table 10.1 shows. By far the majority of metonymic expressions in 2010 are those that use an organisation
Table 10.1 The occurrence of metonyms in the 2010-12 BP texts
name to indicate a person or persons, namely, ORGANISATION FOR MEMBERS. These expressions typically include a verb that would normally require a human subject, for example, in this data extract:
British energy giant BP said Tuesday that first-quarter profits rocketed on higher oil prices but admitted that the news was overshadowed by last week’s tragic accident at a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (Agence France Presse, 27.4.2010)
Unsurprisingly, the most common organisation used in this way is BP, whose corporate comments and actions are central to the story. Other organisations frequently used metonymically are the Coast Guard and rig-owner Transocean. Using the metonymy ORGANISATION FOR MEMBERS can have different kinds of effect. Cornelissen (2008) makes the point that metonymy is used in this way primarily for convenience. However, he goes on to argue (2008: 90) that using the company name with a verb normally requiring an animate subject supports the widespread metaphor by which the company is seen as a person.
While the initial motivation for the metonymy may have been primarily referential as shorthand for a relative clause, the use of this kind of metonymy also cues a metaphorical image of a company as a person or human being.
According to this thinking, by using metonymy in constructions such as “BP said it is committed to doing everything in its power” the company “is imbued with a certain ‘corporate personality’ or ‘corporate identity’” (2008: 90). Cornelissen presents this observation neutrally. However, I would argue that it is generally to a company’s advantage to represent itself as a single entity. In particular in the case of a crisis situation, it is considered crucial that the company “speaks with one voice” and acts as one with a single aim and purpose (Burt, 2012). In this sense, the convenience of using “BP said” rather than naming a person whose identity is not relevant might serve the additional purpose of contributing towards a positive sense of a unified entity.
The corollary of this observation is to conceive the ORGANISATION FOR MEMBERS metonymy as obscuring agency. In the 2010 situation where the question of fault, blame and responsibility was at issue but as yet unexpressed, the use of the designation “BP”, with all the weight of its brand values and corporate identity, has a different role in meaningmaking than “Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP Exploration and Production”. In this way, when “BP” is used metonymically for actors within the company, it works both to represent an existing reality, by indexing all the pre-existing associations readers have with the organisation, and to construct reality, by representing the company as a human being. This applies also to the other organisations used metonymically within the data set.
In the case of BP, however, there was a departure from the typical public relations model. CEO Tony Hayward decided to step out from behind the metonym “BP” and become the public face of the crisis. Many of the 2010 texts include quotations from Hayward personally, from press conferences, press releases and direct from the shores near the oil spill. As Bergin (2011: 166) writes:
This constituted Hayward’s third big PR mistake: he had decided to front the response effort himself. If not the most fatal, it was certainly the most public of his mistakes in handling the crisis. As the CEO of a rival would later tell him, “You stopped being the CEO and slipped into chief operating officer mode.”
Because of this, it is possible that the frequency of occurrence of BP as ORGANISATION FOR MEMBERS is lower than it might have been in a business crisis where key figures seek to present comments as emanating from the company as an organisation rather than as being the words of particular individuals.
The use of metonymic expressions drops from 9.7 per 000 words in
After BP PLC reported Wednesday that net profits rose 16 percent in the first quarter, company officials acknowledged the company has applied for permits to restart drilling in the Gulf. (The Associated Press, 27.4.2011, my emphasis)
The category ORGANISATION FOR MEMBERS covered a limited number of organisations in 2010, focusing on direct participants. In 2011, this group of metonyms refers to a wider spread of organisations, including the US government, the Obama administration, Research and Markets (a publisher) and Shell. This observation accords with the fragmentation of types of actor in the data. Similarly, metonymic usages of the type PLACE FOR PERSON appear to show a movement of interest from the core location of the events in the Gulf to further afield, referring in 2011 to Florida, the White House, and “sister states”.
The category INSTRUMENT FOR PRODUCER appears more significantly in 2011 than in 2010, and relates largely to reports and legal documents, in constructions such as the following:
Coast Guard report slams Transocean over Deepwater Horizon. (SNL Daily Gas Report, 27.4.2011, my emphasis)
The Times editorial seems to ignore the applicable legal background. (SNL Daily Gas Report, 27.4.2011, my emphasis)
The legal remedy that promises to give Florida the maximum recovery in the shortest time is the federal Oil Pollution Act, which makes BP and any other responsible party strictly and fully liable for such harm. (Tampa Bay Times (Florida), 27.4.2011, my emphasis)
These are typical examples of inanimate entities associated with verbs that call for an animate subject, but they also exemplify the process of representation I mentioned earlier in my discussion of intertexts, by which reports and documentation of various kinds, instead of direct participants, are called upon to witness and make meaning of the events.
By 2012, very few metonymic expressions are used. It is understandable that BP would feature far less frequently in the construction ORGANISATION FOR MEMBERS than it did in 2010. What is interesting is that it has not been replaced by the use of any other organisations in this whole-for-part way, and this reflects the limited role that organisational statements of any kind are now playing in the BP story. PLACE FOR PERSON has stayed at about the same level, albeit low. The instances featured in the 2012 data set are “the State [estimates]”, “the city [is catching up]” and “the City [expects]”, reflecting the longer-term implications of the effects of the spill not on directly affected areas but those affected indirectly. Here the metonymic references are to North Dakota (state) and Williston, North Dakota (city) and London’s financial centre (the City). The category INSTRUMENT FOR PRODUCER is lower in 2012 than 2011, but, as in the previous year, helps demonstrate the increasing role of reporting texts mentioned in 2011 in the phrases “social media [has taken corporate responsibility]” and “the report [guides people]”.
Key changes in the use of metonymy can be summarised as follows:
The findings of the metonymy analysis provided additional evidence for the distancing of the story from its original sources on a number of dimensions—distance from BP, reliance on written accounts and the spatial distance of the geographical locations mentioned.
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