Can Social Media Help BP Recover?

BP sign
Ben Stansall | AFP | Getty Images

BP's board broke with tradition when it chose an American, Robert Dudley, to lead the company out of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis and set the UK oil giant on the road to recovery.

To rebuild BP's reputation, advertising experts have recommended that Dudley and the company look beyond traditional media and take steps to build a relationship with the public.

"It's a long-term situation. It could potentially take years," said Tony Hoskins of POP, a digital media strategy agency in Seattle, Wash.

But, added Hoskins, a social media effort that projects sincerity could help the company establish its stated commitment to change. "There's a way to turn this negative energy to getting people involved, if BP engages in it authentically with understanding words and understanding responses."

A ton of misinformation [about BP] is being spread through Twitter. There are so many tweets that the cap isn't real—that the fix is just a sham."
online marketing researcher
Kathryn Koebel

So far, BP's social media strategy has been uninspired, said Paul Argenti, the author Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications and a professor at theTuck School of Business. "They're plugged in with your basic tools," he said, "but it's your standard corporate response."

BP hired Ogilvy & Mather in May to handle its digital media about the crisis, which includes social media, and the Deepwater Horizon Response website, the official online portal where BP and the government have jointly released information on the ongoing crisis. Olgilvy is owned by the WPP group and was the advertiser they help BP rebrand itself with the slogan "Beyond Petroleum" in the early 2000s, following its acquisition of Amoco.

Much of what the company is doing, seems straight out of Ogilvy & Mather's social-media crisis-management playbook. In a 2009 presentation, the head of the company's Digital 360 team, John Bell, outlined a strategy for creating search keywords for a crisis, and advertising on blogs to promote a company's crisis site.

According to AdAge, BP is believed to be spending up to $1 million month on an integrated search marketing campaign on Google and YouTube, to list BP's official site at the top of searches.

Oglivy referred all questions regarding the BP campaign to the oil giant's media officers, who have declined to talk about the strategy while the crisis is ongoing.

On Twitter, much of BP's interactive efforts are often defensive. "A ton of misinformation is being spread through Twitter. There are so many tweets that the cap isn't real—that the fix is just a sham," said online marketing researcher Kathryn Koebel at Primary Impact.

Last week, however, it was BP that was called out for misrepresenting images of its Gulf response, as two blog reports exposed instances of pictures that had been changed electronically.

BP acknowledged that the photos on its page had been altered, saying it was instructing photographers to "refrain from cutting-and-pasting in the future and to adhere to standard photojournalistic best practices."

How effective has the effort been? The numbers so far don't indicate much traction. BP has about 18,000 followers on Twitter, while the Twitter spoof account BP Global PR has 10 times that number. BP's Facebook page lists 36,7000 fans. By contrast, the Boycott BP page on Facebook has 836,000 fans.

Oil booms are seen surrounding an island as they try to protect it from the massive oil spill on May 9, 2010 in Gulf of Mexico.
Getty Images

BP needs to do something more provocative and engaging, added Argenti, but the company's exposure to massive liability may limit its choices. "Lawyers will come up with a million different reasons why you can't do stuff," said Argenti.

But attorney Latoicha Givens, a specialist in new media at the law firm Phillips Givens, disagreed: "They have to be careful."

In instances where the company has used Twitter or Facebook to respond to issues like claims information, Givens maintained that social media could be an asset to BP's defense. "They can show how they're responding to a request, and it could help them in court."

When it comes to trying to rebuild its public image, one veteran advertising executive said it's too soon for BP to embark on a campaign. Hoskins disagreed.

Hoskins thinks BP needs to move out of its comfort zone in social media by doing less management and more engagement.

He pointed out that Toyota has begun to make inroads, in the wake of this year's recall crisis. About Toyota: "They aren't hiding behind the problems they had. They are out in the open, and engaging in a conversation. It can be done."

But, in BP's case, it won't be easy.