BP's oil spill non-response

May 26th, 2010 No Comments

The current disaster in the Gulf states, with the BP oil spill (you know it’s bad when a disaster is named after your company) shows the importance of incorporating social media in your crisis communications plan, and the importance that social media plays in your communication strategy.

For the past month, millions of gallons of oil have been flooding into the Gulf as an oil drilling rig, owned by Transocean Ltd on behalf of bp plc, exploded, killed eleven crew members, and is now threatening the coasts of Louisiana, Mississipi, Alabama, Texas, and Florida.

Ultimately, while BP is in a horrible position, how they respond matters. And the appropriate response today is far different than what was accepted just a few years ago. Today, social media is part of the story – and you don’t control the message.

One of the core issues today is that people demand transparency and immediate news. Social and online media can provide it. According to Ellen Rossano, who used to be the Coast Guard’s public information officer during the Exxon Valdez oil spill:

“I advise my clients that they have to get the truth out as quickly as possible. One of my common-sense rules is you just can’t lie about what’s going on,” she told me. “You’re going to be found out. You can’t say ‘no comment’ anymore. It implies guilt. It implies you’re hiding something. You can always say to the media and the public, ‘Here’s what I can tell you.'”

She also notes:

“I’m thrilled beyond imagining at how the Joint Information Center has been transparent,” she says. “They’re posting situation reports everyday; there’s not much more they could be doing to be transparent, and I think that’s a phenomenal shift. The fact that anybody from the media and public can go to the sites and download video and audio … it’s just a huge improvement.”

Of course, you can’t always control the message. For example, Facebook recently introduced “community pages” which aggregates discussion about a specific topic. One of the important things for companies to be aware of, is that marketers do not control it. For example, bp’s community page has a lot of negative conversation about the bp oil spill.

bp plc’s Facebook presence is hard to find (I only found it by tweeting their account and asking for it), which means that they aren’t being heard or responding to the litany of complaints. Their Facebook page only has 741 fans. Hence, when someone goes on Facebook and looks for info on bp, instead of an official bp statement, they are more likely to find a group like this:

In fact, on Twitter, someone has created a fake account (@BPGlobalPR) with over 37,000 followers, compared to bp America’s real account (@BP_America) with under 6,000.

bp’s website is sorely lacking. There is no link to their social media profiles on their website. A social bar and social media newsroom would help people get access to their information. Posting your latest press release to your website is not a digital media strategy.

While bp is clearly in a bad position (it’s never good when someone names an oil spill after your company, regardless of the other parties also involved), clearly they aren’t doing enough online in their oil spill clean up response.

This is a perfect example where BP can improve their profits (or at least not lose as much) by including social media responses as part of their crisis communications plan.

On the positive side, BP has created a social media presence called Deepwater Horizon Response (Facebook / Twitter / Website) which does have several thousand more fans, but it’s hard to find. Their website campaign site is far far better, but it isn’t as SEO optimized as it could be. The website’s title tags do not include the keywords that people are searching for, and the site is not prominently linked to on BP’s own website. This is a cleanup reactive response, however (in fact, this site is controlled by an outside crisis communications firm), whereas crisis communication plans should include proactive use of all digital communications channels and involve proactive community management, even when things are good.

Many companies are still weary of getting involved in social media (even though social media is not new,  social media is not new)

‘People are already talking about your brand online whether you like it or not. The only question is, are you part of the conversation?

On the other hand, if all else fails, at least you can get cheap gas … or not.

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