Navigating the Spill- What you can learn from BP’s Blunders

The news about BP’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been a hot topic since the Deep Horizon explosion on April 20th. The initial hope that BP would cap the gusher, which is spewing an estimated 12,000 to 150,000 gallons of crude into the ocean every day, has since faded. The ‘Top Kill’ effort failed. Every day brings new images of oily seagulls and tarballs on our beaches.

People started getting angry, and whether it was just BP executives being out of touch with social media or just holding their hands over their eyes until it’s over, the headlines about BP executives’ gaffes inundated Twitter: between BP CEO Tony Heyward saying he “wants his life back” rather than having to deal with the spill or BP Rep Randy Prescott saying “Louisiana isn’t the only place that has shrimp”, the satirical hashtag #bpcares has trended consistently, tacked on to people’s angry or sarcastic tweets about the oil spill or BP’s insufficient response.

The ringleader of these efforts seems to be “Leroy Stick”, the creator of the @BPGlobalPR parody twitter account. With 135,000 followers, @BPGlobalPR’s tweets are retweeted and favorited hundreds of times.

Selected works:

“The good news: Mermaids are real. The bad news: They are now extinct. #bpcares ”
“Safety is our primary concern. Well, profits, then safety. Oh, no- profits, image, then safety, but still- it’s right up there.”
“Please do NOT take or clean any oil you find on the beach. That is the property of British Petroleum and we WILL sue you.”

BP has tried to shut down this Twitter account, which sparked an outrage that Twitter described succinctly with a widely-retweeted quote from comedian Jimmy Fallon: “BP wants Twitter to shut down a fake BP account that is mocking the oil company. In response, Twitter wants BP to shut down the oil leak that’s ruining the ocean.”

As Stick put it in his press release,

I’ve read a bunch of articles and blogs about this whole situation by publicists and marketing folk wondering what BP should do to save their brand from @BPGlobalPR.  First of all, who cares?  Second of all, what kind of business are you in?  I’m trashing a company that is literally trashing the ocean, and these idiots are trying to figure out how to protect that company?….

Do you want to know what BP should do about me?  Do you want to know what their PR strategy should be?  They should fire everyone in their joke of a PR department, starting with all-star Anne Womack-Kolto and focus on actually fixing the problems at hand.  Honestly, Cheney’s publicist?  That’s too easy.

As a social media enthusiast, I have to agree with Stick. If you want to manage your PR online, trying to destroy other people’s dissent only creates more dissent. Twitter should be used for crowdsourcing public opinion of your brand, the rapid dissemination of company news, and engaging with your audience.  One look at the real BP Twitter Account reveals one reply, and several RTs of tweets from government response initiatives, but no conversation. No outreach. No attempts to answer the angry or comfort the afflicted. BP is missing an opportunity here to polish their public image here simply by being transparent. People cry out because they want to be heard. If BP’s Public Relations team really used their Twitter account to engage, even with only 11,000 followers- if they made those 11,000 followers feel like they were listening, then millions more would listen too.

If BP wants to turn the tide of Twitter rage, they need to engage. As it stands, their reputation (and our ocean) may be an oily mess for years to come.