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July 3, 2010
How BP Failed Social Media 101

Over the course of weeks since the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, there has appeared to be one thorn in the side of British Petroleum’s PR team that has served to stoke the ire of the corporation more than any other. It isn’t the media with their 24/7 coverage and underwater live-cam footage of the leak; it isn’t the politicians spouting toothless threats; and it is not Greenpeace and their pseudo militia. What has BP flacks at a loss for an appropriate course of action is one man, or rather, it is one man and a Twitter account.


Shortly after the disaster struck, Leroy Stick (an admitted pseudonym) launched the Twitter account @BPGlobalPR, which he meant to use as a means of parodying the clichéd PR messaging from the BP crisis communications team. What began as Stick’s personal outlet for expressing his frustration through comedy gradually grew (through the magical power of social media) into one of the more poignant commentaries on the subject.


You all know this story by now. In fact, a number of you reading this column are probably one of @BPGlobalPR’s 170,000 followers. There is no point in rehashing what many other PR and social media experts have stated on this matter. The purpose here is to illustrate that when it comes to issues of social importance, the way we as communicators approach and execute initiatives requires a different kind of thinking and, most importantly, assessing the reality of the situation.


An example: Back when I worked in Washington, D.C. in public affairs, we handled an account composed of a consortium of corporations that were concerned about certain environmental legislation that was being debated on the floors of both Houses. Our job was to attempt to sway opinion against this legislation, and, well, let’s just say our clients and the Sierra Club didn’t see eye to eye on the matter.


During a brainstorming meeting, someone at the table brought up the idea of producing a video for YouTube that would deliver our message in a new way. Several present thought this was a great idea -- I did not. My reasoning was simple: Our position was one that was easily assailable. Anyone with enough time on his or her hands and a moderate level of cleverness (someone like Leroy Stick for example) would be able to take the serious-in-nature video we produced and create a parody in response using the most rudimentary of equipment. Users, specifically those on YouTube, do not seek out clips that are serious and informative. They seek out clips that are funny and entertaining. If we had been lucky enough to get 10,000 views of our clip, any attempt at a parody would likely have garnered tenfold that amount (case in point: @BPGlobalPR and its 170,000 followers compared with the 14,000 followers of the verified account of @BP_America).


It has been discussed ad nauseam, and countless case studies exist with evidence that corroborates the power of social media as a means to propagate social causes. The tricky thing is, this is a one-way street. If you happen to be employed to rebrand the Legion of Doom (I may be dating myself here), social media is not the platform you would use to broadcast their message. @TheSuperFriends is going to wipe the floor with you in terms of fervent followers, and you will likely see a rise in negative public sentiment stemming from their Twitter acolytes.


The mistake BP made is one communications students cover in Social Media 101. Social Media is not a soapbox for corporations to stand upon to trumpet quarterly reports, new branch openings, or generalities that fall under the “Look how great we are” category. Users aren’t interested in that information because they are using social media as a means to interact with a corporation or a brand. BP chose to use Twitter as a sounding board of banal talking points, rehashing the very same quotes BP’s hapless CEO’s used on Fox News and HLN.


If BP had been smart and possessed the requisite cojones, they would have used Twitter as a hotline by which the concerned public would use as a direct line to bemoan, harangue, and chastise them (the key to this being a success would be someone on the other end responding). BP made a mistake. They needed take ownership of it, and they needed to listen to the public. At least then the irate public would have feel like someone was listening.


The next time there is a chemical spill, nuclear meltdown, automobile recall, or calamity whose fault lies squarely in the lap of one of your clients, think about what I’ve written here. If you’re client is courageous and thick-skinned, social media will be a useful tool in your arsenal. If your client is not, stick with press releases.

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Justin Celko is a digital communications professional based in Chicago, IL. Follow him on Twitter.

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