BP Fumbles Social Media Response to Spill, What Should It Do?


In terms of bad PR, it doesn't get much worse than BP's continuing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: starting with an explosion that killed 11 employees, getting worse with the company's complacency regarding the possibility of a spill, now reaching new lows with harsh criticism of the company's response -- and about to head even lower with a huge environmental disaster as the oil comes ashore in sensitive tidal wetlands and prime commercial fisheries.

Obviously BP's first priority is stopping the torrent of oil coming from the ocean floor a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico; the second priority (pursued simultaneously) is containing the damage from the spreading slick on the surface. Next to these tasks, formulating a social media strategy might seem trivial, secondary, or even inappropriate -- but as marketers and PR folks will tell you, this should have started the instant the disaster was reported to BP's management.



After all, it's not like the company's marketing and PR staff can suit up to go help engineers and geologists stop the spill -- but they can begin to contain and repair the damage to the company's image and reputation, already a fairly monumental task. And this isn't just about selling gas: BP's liability is essentially "unlimited" as long as the oil is still gushing upwards, according to an expert quoted in the New York Times, and analysts interviewed by Reuters said the company is already holding the bag for $14 billion covering the cost of cleanup, overtime wages of public emergency workers, and damages for environmental impacts, plus compensation for the families of workers who lost their lives.

BP is self-insured, so the financial burden will fall squarely on the company (plus its business partners on the Deepwater Horizon rig). Even for a global mega-energy-company, $14 billion is a lot -- equal to BP's total earnings in 2009. While the company is too big to be destroyed by one disaster, BP may well have to throw itself on the mercy of public opinion to get some financial relief. Top executives could be called to testify to Congress, and the companies lawyers will plead with regulators to avoid gigantic fines like the $5 billion judgment levied on Exxon after the Valdez spill. And public relations and marketing will be key to mitigating the political fallout.

The company definitely needs a social media strategy: as of Sunday evening, if you enter "BP" in Google, the first suggested search is "BP oil spill," and "Gulf" is a top trending search term on Twitter. A search for "BP oil spill" on YouTube returns over 400 videos about the disaster -- mostly news reports but with a good number of "op-eds," ranging from cable and broadcast talking heads to angry amateur rants.

A number of concerned parties are using YouTube to communicate with the public: the official YouTube channels of Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter have posted their remarks on the spill, and the White House channel has done the same for President Obama's comments. A Louisiana law firm posted a TV news report about its efforts to organize a class-action lawsuit. There are also a few channels devoted to collecting videos about the topic.

But it's worth noting one party that doesn't have a response posted on YouTube: BP itself. There's a YouTube profile for "DeepwaterHorizonJIC," linked to the official Web site for the Deep Water Horizon Response Joint Information Center, which is maintained by the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, and BP, among others. However the Web site and YouTube channel don't appear to be platforms for BP's corporate communications to convey what I would call "brand messages"; instead they mostly deal with narrowly technical updates on the efforts to combat the spill. The same is true of JIC profiles on Facebook and Twitter. BP is using Twitter via its @BP_America account -- but the Tweets are pretty barebones, usually just tiny URL links to technical updates.

Of course, the social media landscape consists of more than just what BP is doing -- and as with YouTube, BP's halfhearted sallies on Twitter are drowned by a deluge of hostile Tweets. This is partly just a question of quantity, which could be balanced if BP had a larger presence on these sites and more followers to begin with; but since it's too late to do anything about that, the company might benefit by at least putting a more human (and humane) face on its social media communications. For example, as far as I can see there were no expressions of regret, apologies, or condolences on any of these sites. Posting these kinds of sentiments -- say, directly from the CEO -- would be a small but symbolic gesture which might help temper the maelstrom of negative PR currently engulfing the company.

And that's just a "for example." Obviously I'm not a social media marketer or PR type, so I'm curious to hear what actual social media pros think BP could do to help contain the damage from this unfolding disaster. Anyone have some interesting suggestions?

13 comments about "BP Fumbles Social Media Response to Spill, What Should It Do?".
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  1. Peter Pasi from Zeta Global, May 3, 2010 at 2:14 p.m.

    I agree they should do more, but it may well be that such comments might be "discoverable" and as such land them in an even larger world of hurt than they are in now. I'm not an attorney so would love to hear some thoughts on that from someone familiar with it.

  2. Bruce Ertmann from BCE Media Group, May 3, 2010 at 3:05 p.m.

    Online posts can be discoverable, and likely will need to be produced. But there are striking parallels to the Toyota saga, and once again it seems that too little is being done via social media too late. Having a proactive and robust social media strategy for BP might have mitigated to some extent the huge blow it will suffer to its corporate reputation and credibility and could have also blunted some of the other "discoverable" internal communications that likely will surface in the not too distant future.

  3. Tara Coomans from Akamai Marketing, May 3, 2010 at 3:29 p.m.

    BP could use social media to communicate directly with concerned groups and the media. Not just with apologies, but with updates and breaking news. Marketing and PR should be working on a strategic plan moving forward, because even once this well is capped (assuming that happens) the oil mess will be nothing compared with the PR mess.

    Having a solid communication strategy which includes social media would be beneficial for them moving forward. Announcing the inevitable appropriate relief programs, charitable donations and clean-up commitments could all go viral. The possibilities on Facebook are endless. Also working WITH environmental groups and promoting their cause along side BP's announcements would be beneficial.

    Social Media would also be a great place to reintroduce BP's green energy marketing plan, which has all but disappeared from the airwaves. Presumably, those efforts are ongoing, but it appears as though all advertising has been pulled. The TV campaign should be replaced with something different, but social media would be a great place to keep those messages alive.

    Granted, we have to take these things with a grain of salt. Nothing can completely stave off the problems that BP is having or will have, but then again, isn't this when PR and marketing pros should show their muscle?

    Personally, I think the problem BP has is that the entire corporate response is so lackluster that even the PR and Marketing professionals are having a hard time putting a spin on it. But to ignore the social media potential simply isn't appropriate.

    Very soon, we will have several examples of what NOT to do in a corporate disaster with respects to Social Media. One thing seems clear: to ignore social media is perilous. A smart and creative social media strategy would be smart and could be a key component to the return of positive BP messages.

  4. Jim Banister from SpectrumDNA, Inc., May 3, 2010 at 3:30 p.m.

    i'm afraid their salvation (if it exists) lies in the "do" not the "say." How about providing housing and supplies for those volunteers on the front-line on-shore stemming the deadly tide. how about not listening to sibling chemical companies and trying new (and proven) methodologies that are more focused on environment-saving that profit. this could be the worst eco-disaster *ever*. there actions should dictate their social media strategy-- that is, help society for real. the word will get out.

  5. Catherine Lockey from oz 2 designs LLC, May 3, 2010 at 3:37 p.m.

    I agree that BP should have had a much larger social media presence to begin with. A more human face is needed now; therefore, an aplology and a show of great concern by BP will only benefit them. Staying silent doesn't work today. My suggestions: BP show every step of every effort they are making. There should be videos, blog posts, and tweets detailing exactly what that BP is doing to contain the accident. Meet with officials in charge of every area that will be affected. Make calls and gather volunteers and set up stations and ships to help save the wildlife which will be affected - all the while documenting their efforts on YouTube, FB, Twitter, and their blog. Video and share success stories. Create and publish long term environmental help plans and follow through with them. BP engineers should create emergency shut off plans in order to prevent future spills into the ocean due to accidents and should share these plans with all companies who drill in the ocean. This new process and the sharing of it should be featured in future BP ads.

  6. James Burchill, May 3, 2010 at 4:21 p.m.

    This is a tough situation to be in there's no doubt. Any action BP takes will be discounted because it's reactive and not pre-emptive. Add to that the fact they are starting from a seriously disadvantaged position and I'd be pretty stressed if I was the SM expert developing this campaign. What they do or say now will be a blend of legal maneuvering and communications control. It will take great bravery and clarity to move ahead in unfavourable times like this, and I for one wish them well. Whatever happens now, I suspect this will become another text book case study of what to do and what not to do in the world of corporate social media - history is being written here folks.

  7. Alison Broomall from Knowledgent Group, May 3, 2010 at 7:50 p.m.

    Catherine's plan is dead-on. They need a multi-pronged strategy but the most important thing they can do is chronicle all of their activities, be very transparent, enlist the support and guidance of every relevant environmental group that can possibly help them manage through this disaster, and most importantly, they should have started this yesterday. They've got to move, and move quickly. This situation has an explosive velocity unparalleled to any other recent or current world event.

  8. Michael Senno from New York University, May 3, 2010 at 11:25 p.m.

    Without having read all the comments up to this point, bear in mind BP is less consumer facing than most brands, and while I strongly believe they should be in social managing PR its not as critical for them than as for some other brands, nor is it the most critical things on their plate right now.

  9. Peter Cervieri from ScribeLabs, May 4, 2010 at 8:04 a.m.

    maybe BP can start running their "beyond petrolium" ads again to remind us that oil is but a small part of what they do, only accounting for 99.99% of their annual revenue and 99.99% of their annual R&D. i miss the ads that highlighted their 0.01% efforts in energy sources other than oil.

  10. David Ricketts from N-A, May 4, 2010 at 10:05 a.m.

    Social Media?!? Seriously, what BP needs to do is fix this leak and then set about preventing a repeat on any & all it's other rigs. BP needs to be seen tackling not just this spill but preventing future ones, rather than being exposed for having opposed & lobbied against measures that would have stopped this spill on day one.

    Once it has done those things, it can work out how it is going to repay everyone it has damaged.

  11. Gabriel Alvarez from LLOnline Blogera, LLC, May 4, 2010 at 7:13 p.m.

    From Day one, they should've recognized full responsability instead of finding scape-goats through all their PR venues, especially thru social media. Not a good way to start your PR defense. Time to catch up

  12. Michael Brigham from socal, May 5, 2010 at 1:50 p.m.

    following up....From the NY Times....perhaps he is right.

    The company considered a broad advertising campaign, but top BP executives rejected the idea before planning even started. “In our view, the big glossy expressions of regret don’t have a lot of credibility,” said Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman.

    Instead, the company has dispatched executives to hold town meetings in the affected region, and it has turned to lower-profile social media outlets to trumpet its cleanup efforts and moves to organize volunteers.

  13. Jeff Rutherford from Jeff Rutherford Media Relations, LLC, May 5, 2010 at 1:58 p.m.

    There are a lot of ways that BP could have used social media - as just another tool in their crisis PR toolkit. There's no magic ingredient, secret formula about social media. It's just another communications platform. And one that could have been used much more effectively by BP America.

    Here are a few suggestions:

    1. Have a crisis PR plan
    2. Own their brand on Twitter
    3. Don't be afraid to use social media to communicate what's going on.
    4. Overcommunicate
    5. Engage 1-on-1 w/ critics and others on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
    6. Monitor hash-tags and respond exhaustively
    7. Monitor Wikipedia for accuracy
    8. Communicate volunteer opportunities for helping with the cleanup via social media.

    I expand on these points in a blog post that I just posted.

    Jeff Rutherford

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