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 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 taken a public thrashing for not just the environmental and economic disaster but for also 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. 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.

And BP's messages largely are getting lost amid the public outcry that is overflowing on social networking sites. Search for BP on Facebook and you're more likely to find " Boycott BP " pages, one of which has more than 600,000 followers, rather than BP's official site. And on Twitter , a phony BP account that makes fun of the company has more than 162,000 followers, while the official BP Twitter account has less than 15,000.

Stuart Williams, an analyst with Technology Business Research, says BP may be acquiescing to corporate lawyers who most likely are advising the company to watch everything it says - whether it's from a spokesman during a news conference or someone posting updates on Twitter.

"I think their legal department is telling them to be very careful of every word they're posting on social media or it will boomerang back on them in a court of law or the court of public opinion," said Williams. "They know they have to be extremely careful about the messages they put out."

Kerley, though, said a good part of BP's social media problem during this crisis is that the company didn't have a significant presence on social networking sites before trouble hit.

"I think BP did not take full advantage of social media during peace time," he explained. "It feels like BP is behind because before the spill they didn't have people following them on Twitter or listening to them on Facebook.... Companies have to realize that they need to be proactive and generate a social media audience in peace time and let people affiliate with the brand. When crisis time comes around, then people would know where to go to get information. So now when people go to social media, they find joke sites and parody accounts. It's because BP was nowhere to be found [before]."

So with Web 2.0 tools and social media sites bringing about a new world for corporate PR departments, are any companies actually using these new tools to their advantage?

According to Kerley, Six Flags Entertainment Corp., a company running 19 parks across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, used social media to help work its way through a recent Chapter 11 restructuring.

"It was one of those things where the public just saw bankruptcy...," said Kerley. "Six Flags did a good job of seeing that the public was having a knee-jerk reaction and they went online and reached out to people. They used Twitter, primarily, and Facebook pages for all of their parks, and they set up conference calls with their CEO and bloggers. It led to a better understanding of the process and a message that the parks were open and come have fun this summer."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said social networks can be a double-edged sword for companies trying to get through a public crisis. If used well, they can help get important messages out to the public. If not, they can come back to bite.

"I can't think of another company that has faced as big a crisis as BP recently, or at least since the advent of social media," added Olds. "This situation with BP could end up being very instructive for companies needing to handle problems like this in the future -- either in a positive or negative way."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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