BP Oil Spill Response: Digital Lessons Learned

For weeks now, oil has been spewing into the Gulf of Mexico and, as more of it flows, BP’s public image has correspondingly sunk. A failure to stop the leak, multiple cringe-worthy clips of CEO Tony Hayward and continual obscurity as to what exactly BP is doing led to this—together with an outmoded, 20th century approach to communications.

While BP has aired a TV ad with Hayward talking directly to the camera and pledging to take responsibility, its digital efforts seem, in many cases, almost invisible or tactically lacking. While the consensus appears to be that whatever BP does it won’t be enough, here are five digital lessons learned from the BP spill—lessons that you might be able to apply in your crisis situations:

1. Engage With the Blogosphere: BP should have reached out to bloggers much earlier, much more openly, much more aggressively and more often. The Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center has done this, but that has not proved to be a substitute for action led by BP itself, which has been ripped to shreds by political bloggers. Environmental bloggers have posted increasingly depressing images of stricken wildlife.  

Recent studies show that up to 90% of reporters get story ideas and information from blogs; ordinary Americans typically come across blog coverage in Google search results; government staffers and public officials regularly read content from the biggest blogs also. Consequently, devoting substantial attention to high-impact bloggers up front, instead of relying primarily on communication with the “usual” mainstream media suspects, could have paid real dividends for BP.

2. Go Straight to Video: Another more innovative step BP might have taken relates to that Hayward TV ad. Appropriate for TV as it looks and sounds, BP almost certainly would have done better to have sat Hayward in front of a camera, skipped the well-crafted background scenes and high-end production and had him deliver the same basic message—and then stuck the video on YouTube. This would have helped BP avoid the stinging criticism from President Obama over its spending on an expensive TV ad campaign. Ironically, BP’s chosen medium actually underlined the sense of misplaced priorities that officials and members of the public have regarding it.

Furthermore, BP would likely have gotten an equivalent amount of attention focused on the clip, which would have garnered media coverage on the networks and cable, and in contexts where viewers might be less likely to mute and ignore the ad, or, alternately, fast-forward through it if captured by DVRs.

3. “Modernize” the Homepage: At present, BP’s homepage is heavily reliant on the archaic press release, and, notably, it does not host a blog. This matters because of the way the public perceives these two tools of message dissemination. Press releases, while useful, familiar and inoffensive to reporters, scream “undisguised propaganda” to ordinary members of the public. Here again, BP’s chosen approach has only served to underline what the public has come to perceive: BP’s only objective is to look good (as opposed to “do good”), and if that means concealing the facts or obscuring reality, well, so be it.

4. Create Communities: Given the overwhelming interest shown by volunteer groups in helping with the cleanup, it would have been smart for BP to set up an online community forum—similar to a community blog or Ning network—linked from its homepage, where people could organize themselves to assist with operations. More valuable than a wildlife distress phone number to call—or something to offer along with it—would be an actual link to charities rescuing and caring for wildlife.

5. Tweak Tweets: BP should have better used Twitter hashtags to insert itself into ongoing online buzz. Of the 20 most recent tweets from BP’s @BP_America account reviewed as of June 7, only three of them used the hashtag #oilspill, which Twitter users—including reporters—were searching for to get up-to-date info on events in the Gulf.

Of late, #oilspill has been one of the top 10 trending terms on Twitter nationwide. Meanwhile, @BP_America has only about 14,000 followers watching what it has to say, directly, on Twitter; the highly critical fake BP account @BPGlobalPR, however, has over 160,000—again making Twitter a weak point in BP’s digital communications chain.

Ultimately, there is a lot to learn from BP’s handling of this crisis. Where digital communication specifically is concerned, the simplest lesson is “every little bit helps.” PRN


Liz Mair is VP of Hynes Communications. She can be reached at [email protected].