British Petroleum has a problem, and it’s spreading. I’m not just talking about the oil pumping at an alarming rate into the Gulf of Mexico. I’m talking about the slick of digital outrage that is rapidly becoming toxic to the BP brand and image.
As Ronald D. White wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Seeking to blunt criticism of its emergency response, British oil giant BP vowed Friday to harness all of its resources to battle the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as the company worked frantically to stay ahead of the growing disaster and the blow to its carefully manicured image of environmental responsibility.”
BP may have an easier time capping the gushing well than the toxic word-of-mouth that is spewing forth on social media.
For starters, words like BP and phrases like “oil spill” have been trending on Google andTwitter for days. Wikipedia entries, such as “Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion”, havesprung up with updates as frequent as hourly. One of those entries reads:
“The Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico,exploded after a blowout on April 20, 2010, and sank two days later, taking with it eleven livesand causing a significant oil spill … The EPA and White House have simply been calling itthe ‘BP Oil Spill.’”
For the record, in PR circles, if a disaster gets named after your company, this is a bad thing.
A search on YouTube for “Deepwater Horizon” reveals almost 300 videos on the spill, mainlynegative in tonality, with audience numbers in the many tens of thousands of views.
Twitter was awash in criticism of BP. In a tepid response, BP seemed to be using a fairlydormant Twitter account “@BP_America” to disseminate information about the spill, withtweets like:
“BP ONSHORE PREPARATIONS FOR GULF COAST OIL SPILL: http://bit.ly/cG6zob”
Someone should tell them CAPS LOCK = YELLING in digital media.
BP actually seems to be using its website and traditional means of communication (newsreleases for example) quite well, given the circumstances. But in social media they are theproverbial lame duck. I often tell my clients, the day of the crisis is not the day to learn to usesocial media. Too bad BP wasn’t tuned in to this reality.
The @BP_America account has a total of 52 tweets, one per week, since its inception inApril 2009. Not one of those tweets has an @ symbol in it, meaning they have replied to noone, ever. Apparently BP’s idea of social is pure monologue broadcast. Consistent with that approach is the fact they follow only one other account.
From a PR perspective, what is more damaging is BP has a paltry 1842 followers. In contrast,@Greenpeace has over 40,000.
And the link on the @BP_America Twitter page leads to a classic corporate “brochure-ware”page that has no information on the spill until you click into the “Press” section. The main BPwebsite is much better.
Finally, when you look at how BP is listed by other Twitter users, they are often categorizedby the words “oil spill”, whereas previously they were listed under “energy” and even “greenenergy”.
This spill is going to stick to BP’s image like oil to a pelican’s back, in some measure becausethey are unable to contain the reputational damage through efficient digital communicationsand preparation.
There are some folks doing a good job reporting on the spill via social media. Take EPAAdministrator @lisapjackson for example. Jackson has been issuing ongoing updates onTwitter and Facebook. And the “Deepwater Horizon Unified Command” (which includes BP)has done some interesting reporting with something called the “PIER system” which appearsto be a so-called “dark site provider”, popping up crisis response websites in near real-time.
Any way you slice it, BP (read: shareholders) will pay, in both money and reputation. FromCNNMoney.com:
“The clean up and the lawsuits together might run might run the company $3 billion,according to a research note Friday from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. But even that figurecould be higher if the incident hits BP’s reputation to the point where other firms no longerwant to do business with them …BP shares have sank nearly 13% in the last 5 days – wipingout $25 billion in shareholder value.”
Could that have been mitigated? It’s hard to say given the scope and scale of this incident. Itcertainly couldn’t have hurt to have fans, followers, and plans to communicate.
As usual, send me your feedback on Twitter at @dblacombe or via e-mail email@example.com.
Doug Lacombe is president of communicatto.com, a social media marketing agency.