BP, in crisis mode, misses social networking target

'Boycott BP' pages on Facebook and phony Twitter account give oil company a public thrashing

While oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico and BP Plc. faces a PR nightmare, the last thing the company needed to do was make matters worse.

But that, according to industry watchers, is just what BP did by failing to take advantage of social networking to open a clear line of communication with people living on the Gulf coast and around the world.

BP, the third-largest energy company in the world, is at the center of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. In the two months since an explosion aboard an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico triggered the spill, scientists estimate that upwards of 2.5 million barrels of oil have flowed into the water off the U.S. coast.

Not surprisingly, BP has taken a public thrashing for not just the environmental and economic disaster but also for not being more forthcoming with the public about the problem. And while it could have used social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to report on the problem and what it was doing to stem the flow and ease the damage, it has largely missed that opportunity.

"BP is in one of the biggest PR crises that we've seen," said Patrick Kerley, a senior digital strategist for Levick Strategic Communications, a PR and crisis communication firm.

"I think that the problem they're having is that it's an ongoing process that doesn't have an easy solution and it's exacerbated by the idea that they're not showing the sort of engagement with the public that PR in 2010 expects," Kerley said. "They were playing by old rules... Dealing with a crisis has totally changed because of social media. They didn't get that."

With the old rules -- think of the Tylenol poisoning crisis in the 1980s -- companies had time to sit back and devise a strategy. Tylenol, for instance, shut down distribution, came up with a new product and went back to market with a safer pill container.

Kerley said in today's world of viral videos, bloggers, Facebook boycott campaigns and Twitter, companies can't go quiet for even a few days to come up with a public response.

"People aren't waiting for Walter Cronkite to tell them what to think," added Kerley. "They're talking with each other online. It's too late for companies if they don't' use social media right away when a crisis strikes."

BP does have a presence on Facebook and Twitter. It also gets some of its message out through the Deepwater Horizon Response, a group of organizations such as BP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, responding to the oil spill. Deepwater Horizon Response has its own Web site, along with a Facebook page and a YouTube channel.

Google also confirmed with Computerworld that BP has bought key ad words on the search site. People searching for phrases such as "oil spill" will get a sponsored link to stories on BP's own site that describe how the company is helping. Reports have also surfaced that BP bought key ad words on Yahoo, too.

The company has taken a lot of heat for spending money to buy key ad words when that money could have gone to containing, or cleaning up, the actual spill.

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