August 23, 2010
At 3:07 p.m. on May 19 — 29 days after the start of the Gulf oil crisis — @BPGlobalPR sent out its first tweet: “We regretfully admit that something has happened off of the Gulf Coast. More to come.”
According to the Twitter account’s bio: “This page exists to get BP’s message and mission statement out into the twitterverse!”
Those last three words were an understatement, and the 465 tweets (as of press time) that followed have made @BPGlobalPR a Twitter sensation, generating media coverage in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, ABC News and countless blogs, as well as speaking gigs for the author, who goes by the pseudonym Leroy Stick. (Read our interview with Stick here.)
Although some people initially mistook the parody account for an official BP Twitter account and directed their ire accordingly, @BPGlobalPR became a wake-up call for all communicators.
Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communications + Technology in Concord, Calif., says that BP deserves some of the blame for the existence of @BPGlobalPR.
“He’s not attacking what BP is doing to cap the oil leak. He’s attacking the way BP is communicating,” Holtz says. “Would this have been started if BP had done good public relations? They have made a lot of mistakes, and that created an environment that was just fertile for something like @BPGlobalPR to capture people’s attention.”
Delaying the response
The lack of a social media presence prior to the crisis also hampered BP’s ability to respond to @BPGlobalPR, says Kevin Dugan, APR, director of social marketing for Empower MediaMarketing in Cincinnati.
“BP waited until the crisis hit to engage in social media,” he says. “While they turned their website into a deep resource of information, it didn’t matter. Conversations were already taking place on Twitter, Facebook and other social sites.”
Neil Chapman, head of refining and marketing communications at BP, agreed that the time to learn about the use of social media is before a crisis strikes.
In a May 17 interview with Neville Hobson, who co-hosts the podcast For Immediate Release with Holtz, Chapman said, “[Social media] had largely been used by the corporation for another channel for sending messages out, not engaging in a conversation…We were trying to move very quickly into an area that we were not that familiar with.”
Managing the fallout
However, now that BP is in crisis mode, how should the company manage the social media fallout from @BPGlobalPR?
BP spokespeople have acknowledged the account and apparently contacted Twitter to make @BPGlobalPR clearly label itself as a parody. The inquiry led to a change in @BPGlobalPR’s bio, which temporarily read: “We are not associated with Beyond Petroleum, the company that has been destroying the Gulf of Mexico for 50 days.”
For the most part, BP officials have ignored @BPGlobalPR, which might be all they can do. However, rather than be at odds with social media, Holtz suggests that BP would have been better off crowdsourcing ideas to generate potential solutions to the disaster. For example, BP could have followed the lead of Dell’s Idea Storm, which the company launched in February 2007 to provide its customers with an avenue for online brainstorming sessions.
“With the oil spill, you have an engineering challenge that has never been dealt with before. The technology doesn’t exist,” Holtz says. “At the same time, you have university engineers, engineers in other industries, hackers who might know something about this stuff. If you ask them to help solve the problem and offer a reward, what do you have to lose?”
Communication doesn’t matter as much as action. As Leroy Stick said in an interview with Ad Age: “This isn’t a PR nightmare, it’s an actual nightmare.” BP won’t be able to fix its reputation until it fixes the leak — and even the best communications effort couldn’t overcome that crisis. This is even truer today as the Internet has proven effective at exposing the gap between what companies say and what they actually do.
How you communicate matters. Holtz referenced an influential Oxford Executive Research Briefing from 1995 titled “The Impact of Catastrophes on Shareholder Value.” The briefing stated that companies with an effective crisis plan saw a 5 percent gain in shareholder price after 50 days, while companies without a plan lost 15 percent up to one year after the crisis. If you compare this oil spill with the Exxon Valdez spill in March 1989, BP has lost half of its share price while Exxon shares ended that year 7 percent above where the stock was before the accident.
Learn social media before a crisis occurs. As Kevin Dugan, APR, says, social media and crisis communications each require a unique approach. But they are not mutually exclusive from each other. Of those companies with crisis plans , how many of them have been updated to reflect social media? “Since the majority of companies do not have a social media policy in place,” Dugan says, “I’m willing to bet the majority of companies are not ready for the social facet of crisis communications.” — N.S.