Social Media Fairies And Pixie Dust

Posted by

Hands up if you like big oil?

Anyone… anyone… Bueller… Bueller…? Was it the explosion of an oil rig that set you off ? Was it the lost lives of the hard-working individuals on that rig that is upsetting you? Maybe it’s the who-knows-how-many thousands of liters of oil that continues to spew into our oceans every single day? Perhaps it’s just the realization that this is (and will be) one of the worst environmental disasters our world has ever seen?

It’s enough to make you sick.

BP is a business and the big business question that is on many people’s minds (beyond market-caps, potential bankruptcy and overall impact on our world) is: how are they dealing with this tragedy from a marketing, communications and public relations perspective? The answer is: not very well, thank you very much for asking. Are they bad at it? Are they making the wrong moves? Was it a stupid idea to have BP CEO Tony Hayward give an emotionless apology in the form of a 30-second-spot (and then post it on YouTube as well)? Many media and business pundits feel that BP needs to spend more time using social media to connect and communicate in a more human way with the citizens of this world.

Seems kind of silly to think that being active on Twitter is going to change the general sentiment that the mass populace has of the BP brand.

"If BP is going to come out the back end of what’s on its way to being the worse environmental disaster in history, (it’s) going to have to be part of the dialogue in social media," said Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester Research in the June 21, 2010, article, BP Gets Aggressive, for AdWeek. "The challenge is what happens in the real world is reflected in social media."

Facebook, Google ads and a Twitter account can help a brand. It may even be able to save a brand, but there is a fundamental flaw in these strategies and tactics when it comes to BP: big oil isn’t something that anybody likes. In fact, it would be fair to say that big oil is something that everybody hates (with the mild exception of those employed by said big oil companies). Prior to the Gulf of Mexico disaster, no consumer ever pulled up to a gas pump as a happy consumer. No consumer ever paid to fill up their tank with gas and then thought to themselves, "I should really friend this brand on Facebook!"

Social media (and marketing, communications and advertising, in general) can’t save you when people have a general disdain for your brand and everything that you represent.

The business model of oil (even down to the gas pump) still remains a black box mystery to the average consumer. No one truly understands why the prices are the way they are, and it’s even more confusing that you can have multiple brands with different outlets, but they have the exact same prices on opposing street corners. Real-estate agents used to have this kind of "black box" control until websites like MLS came along. Suddenly, seeing all of the asking prices for homes in a specific neighborhood became democratized content and the mystery behind the business unveiled (a little). BP (and other big oil) are not going to shed their negative image by letting people know how they make their billions in profits.

Social media will not save them.

With the democratization of publishing content in text, images, audio and video online, instantly and for (next-to) free, some good stuff is oozing out of the Gulf of Mexico. If you’re so inclined, you can go online and follow real stories from real human beings (without the PR pap) about what is truly happening. Individuals and organizations that care are tweeting their personal stories, they’re publishing pictures and videos, and we’re more connected as a society to this than we ever would have been in the decades that preceded the spill. People are collaborating; they’re discussing possible solutions and debating what the government and society could (and should) do to hold BP and the others accountable.

Instead of BP using these channels and platforms to re-broadcast their very cold and calculated messaging, BP can learn by listening to the voices of those who are publishing with integrity, transparency, openness and candor.

Social media is great because it allows you to say things in a very human way. This disaster is so bad that there really is very little left to say. In fact, one could argue that there’s nothing left to say, but to begin the hard work of cleaning up this mess, compensating those who have suffered and ensuring that this never happens again. All trust and credibility in BP has been lost and shattered, so if the tenants of social media are based on trust and credibility, how can BP be expected to engage and truly connect? For now, it’s hopeless, but it probably was hopeless long before a drop of oil ever touched the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, it’s your turn… what’s your take?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. I really don’t think social media can save BP. I think at this point people just want them to clean up their mess and act responsibly. I personally don’t want to interact with an oil brand but maybe if they showed they cared and were equally distressed about the crisis as everyone else they may get some respect.
    However, that being said, ‘Big Oil’ can still do whatever it wants because we still need and depend on them and until we get our acts together and work harder towards sustainable alternatives, sadly nothing will change.

  2. Nothing can save BP, not when you’re spending time on yachts instead of stopping the leak, which must be done before you can even think of anything else. I’m kind of annoyed by this talk about BP’s future when all that matters to me is that oil is still gushing onto the shores of the people who are already being affected by it.
    As a company, if you don’t “get it” then social media will only make it easier for the public to find this out.
    BTW, Mitch, great discussion on The Beancast this week about BP. For those who missed it, it is here:

  3. Mitch – as you’ve said many times it takes being transparent and being genuine to allow social media to work for you. BP lacks both. We can all see through their messaging and their strategy is simply to cover their you-know-what – instead of being open, honest and collaborative.
    IMO, they’re acting more like a government than a company. And, the spin factor is WAY off the charts. Like Danny said above, they just don’t get “it”.
    My ¢2…

  4. Social media can save them, yes!! Many scientists from Alberta have alrady posted potential solutions to contain the problem, Social media can be used to get in touch with “Lead users” poeple who are innovateur, scientist and idea can be exchanged and possible solutions can be created through interaction.
    Many companies use social media to hunt for innovation done by consumers. BP can use social media to be in touch with scientist in Alberta, the capital energy of Canada and with others from around the globe.
    Social media can save them!!

  5. I agree, nothing can really save BP’s image at this point. It is beyond tarnished.
    However, I think crowdsourcing would be a very interesting element for them to consider at this point. There’s a lot of very smart people out there and they don’t all work for BP. Google, Pepsi and others have used crowdsourcing as a tool to leverage intelligence from the masses. So why wouldn’t BP give it a shot? It would demonstrate a level of engagement that we have not previously seen from them.
    In my opinion, crowdsourcing is the only social media tool they can really use at this point that COULD make people take a step back and say, hey, these guys actually care. But will it save them? Not a chance in hell.

  6. Interesting take…and I think you’re right social media will not save them, only capping the oil will do at this point, compensating those affected and helping to clean up the mess. BP’s lack of a social media presence and even media savvy has only added insult to injury…but I’m not sure even if they were the most media or social media savvy it would help. Understandably there are issues in the U.S. no one really likes to talk about–big oil and energy are one of those…but for a country in the midst of huge economic challenges and job losses, the oil industry would do well to play that card. The reality is they employ millions and right now there are no viable, accessible, and affordable options. I would also be interested in your take on the political ramifications and how you think the Obama administration handled the crisis. Because while no one expected the president to cap the well, you had Louisiana residents crying out for help while blame was being passed around to BP (rightly so), images of animals covered in oil but also while a president is golfing, doing fund raisers, golfing, doing interviews with with the NBA playoffs, etc., & basically reacting only when there was public outcry/political convenience. Regardless of party affiliation, when a disaster strikes or when people are suffering, people want to be reassured (even if it’s only the appearance) that it has their gov’t official’s attention and that their representatives are doing all they can… even in the midst of unprecedented disasters. There’s a lot of failure to go around and lessons to be learned.

  7. YES. If BP is acting like an ostrich with its head in the ground, it may be because they have little idea as to what to communicate. How would they engage and make ammends when the company is continually making things worse by not being able to stop the spill? To tweet out “We’re sorry” 1 million times? They’re silent because they have no idea how to continue apologizing, and they know that their attempts to right their wrongs aren’t strong enough to highlight either.

  8. Big oil is a business people love to hate. Big oil needs to become a business that loves to help. The world, or at least the US, might have been a lot more willing to be flexible with BP if it had had an image of supporting the communities it was in with more than just jobs. It could have previously advertised all of the great work it did to protect wildlife in the areas it drills (assuming it ever tried protecting it). It could have partnered with a nonprofit and offered to match donations dollar for dollar. Imagine if, instead of just putting $20 million in escrow, BP had instead put $10 million in escrow and then said that it would match any donations to oil clean up charities dollar for dollar. Somehow, I think that would have been more effective in terms of saving its image. Do I think social media itself would really make a difference this late in the game? No way.

  9. I think BP is handling Social Media very well, BP is not using social media the way “it should” because, that is is not who “they are” and in such BP is being authentic.

  10. BP is done. The brand is finished. The only thing they can do is try to hold it together financially, get the liabilities off the books as quickly as they can and sell themselves so they can be absorbed by another company.

  11. Yup, exactly. Great point. I hate to be a fan boy and just agree – but there’s a parallel I can add here: I always have to do a lot of work with brands saying “we need to advertise because we’re picking up some negative perception!”. 9 times out of 10, that’s the wrong way to go. Just like advertising won’t convince people that a bad brand is good – social simply will not either.

  12. Agree, I think the BP brand is not going to recover from this disaster. But I also think they will not go away. I agree they shouldn’ t use social media as a PR tool at this point. The damage is done and to start a conversation wouldn’t seem genuine now.
    I think they missed a huge opportunity to take the lead and leverage crowdsourcing to come up with ideas to fix the problem. I have to believe that somewhere in the world there is a team of engineers or group of people that collectively can fix this problem. Or use social media channels to find a better means of cleaning up the spills. I would most people hate BP but would be willing to pitch in and try and prevent this from happening again.
    IMO the biggest issue is the failure to take responsibility and stand behind the decisions made internally. If they had admitted failure up front (and gotten rid of Tony early on) and used social media to identify ways to clean up the spill, fix the problem and prevent it from happening again, then sure I would have respect for the brand.
    There is someone out there who is creative, bold enough to believe they can make a difference and then find others (not BP) to share ideas, identify solutions and get them implemented.

  13. Social Media is a tool not a solution. People tend to think that social media is a “catch all”. BP has a disaster to deal with and they must implement many many tools to try and repair the damage.

  14. This gets at the first rule of social media: Know why you’re there.
    If BP uses social media to listen, they may find places to engage with innovators who have valuable ideas their own employees, hampered by the confines of corporate culture, haven’t considered or been able to have heard. It may be to their advantage to engage offline, and social media probably won’t help BP’s image for years to come. But it may help solve a fraction of the tremendous mess they gave us to cope with.

  15. Mitch,
    I am one of the exceptions you mention who is employed by an international energy company (Note: these views are my own and may not represent that of my employer). I would agree with you, BP and other energy companies could do a better job engaging the end consumers. The industry has historically had a business to business view of the world and I think it is in the process of transitioning its focus to the individual. The ‘black box’ information is available and assessable by anyone who is interested and willing to look. The issue is getting the information in front of the citizens of this world, which most if the time is not interested yet critical of the industry. Chesapeake Energy, not my employer, does a pretty good job of engaging in these channels and letting people know about their involvement in the communities they operate.

  16. I think you raise a great point that is likely lost on much of the population. Big oil does have a business to business approach to what it does. What is extracted is fed back into the market for other governments, businesses, and military operations which are by-in-large the major customers for oil. Boycott all you’d like, it won’t affect BP’s bottom line cash flow.
    More of the concern might be at the political level. Elected politicians from local to federal jurisdictions are going to be fighting for those votes come next election. And it mightn’t be pretty.
    For me the social media angle is moot. BP has to do something positive which it can then propagate via social channels. It won’t come from apologies. That just infuriates people.
    Let it known that I’m not against big oil either. In fact they are responsible for bringing us much of the technical marvels that we’re using today, including plastic and other petroleum-based products used to build computers. Computers aside, oil is used to make almost everything we come into contact with every day.
    Clearly we should seek alternative energies in the future. But let’s hope that people get off their high horses and realize that we need regulations in place to safeguard against disasters. Oil is here to stay.

  17. Nothing will save BP. I personally believe the brand is gone.
    The situation is much much worse than people think.
    From the initial days, as soon as I saw that they were lying, and covering everything with PR, and that we had a very high pressure mixture blast up a full 35,000 feet, blow up all the mechanisms engineered to prevent such a thing, I knew BP would disappear in its current form.
    The significance of this event is that BP doesn’t know, as a corporation, how to drill at those depths. Regulators, corrupt, failed to do their jobs too.
    I may also be wrong, seeing that in many countries now, we have become corpocracies or corporatocracies, with governments for corporations and by corporations.
    Sources: The Oil Drum website, and many others.

  18. I forgot to add:
    Look at the log now. How does it make you feel?
    It makes me feel like I’m seeing one of those bio hazard or nuclear hazard warning logos.
    That’s the death of a brand.

  19. Mitch, I agree that this is the worst environmental disaster the world has seen. I agree, at this moment in time that social media can’t save BP from it’s peril. This is typical of large corporates acting slowly to the noise and not understanding the power of social media. However, what I notice with “people in general” that as time goes on, they easily forget. You only have to look at what the population does at voting time. I hope BP is made to pay and that people “remember” this no matter how much money BP in the future spends on re-marketing or re-branding themselves.

  20. Social media can’t save BP. By listening to ideas that are in the wild RIGHT now & developing them into a solution to cap the well & clean the spill, BP can use social media to help save the environment. Social media = save the environment. There is a special place in hell for the exec’s that ignored and avoided the issues leading up to this mess, and no amount of Twitter messages or Facebook fans can pull them out of that fire pit.

Comments are closed.