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?