Where to pick your fight back
BP is the latest reluctant case study in how companies caught in crisis can use the web to respond, even if sometimes there is valour in discretion, David Bowen says.
|Nestlé’s trial by social media David Bowen commentary||BP|
|Deepwater Horizon Response||BP America Twitter|
|BP America Facebook||Boycott BP Facebook page|
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has provided another opportunity to see how companies in trouble have used the web, and how they have been treated by it, as they became embroiled in a controversial and headline-making incident. Put alongside the lessons from Nestlé’s recent débacle with Greenpeace and Facebook, it provides more evidence that the web is playing an increasingly critical role in crises. And that for companies the role requires huge skill to pull off.
The two sides of this latest story – how BP, whose drilling operation was at the centre of the oil disaster, has used the web and how it has been treated by it – are very different.
Triggered by the first alarm
The group’s exploitation of the web has been timely and efficient. As soon as the accident at the drilling site happened, it cleared its normally bland home page feature, and replaced it with updates and signposts to resources elsewhere. A week later almost all other elements have been removed from the page and a new ‘Gulf of Mexico response’ primary link has been added to site navigation.
BP understands that its global home page is the most important contact point with the outside world and is using it to send a message that it knows just how serious the situation is.
Giving over the whole of a corporate home page to a crisis response is, as far as I know, a first and marks, in a grim way, another step in the maturing of the web as a primary communication medium.
The page is, moreover, carefully maintained to reflect the group’s messages. The text is neutral but there are links to television interviews with executives, who have started to be more robust.
Collateral damage limitation
I notice, too, that BP has been buying up keywords on Google. ‘Oil spill’ triggers a sponsored link on Google UK, showing just how important management of keywords has become. Strange, then, that it hasn’t done the same on Google US, leaving the sponsored panel open to opponents such as the Gulf Oil Spill Litigation Group.
BP has also rapidly deployed a ‘dark’ site (one kept in readiness for such situations) – or rather someone has. A link on the home page for a Joint Information Centre leads to the Deepwater Horizon Response site, which includes BP’s logo as well as those of various US agencies and that of the oil platform operator, Transocean. The source code shows that the site is from Pier Systems, which means that it is the same as the one used by BP after the Texas City refinery explosion in March 2005 and other crises. But that could be a coincidence.
Whatever, the site is designed to cope with situations exactly like this. It is robust, to handle heavy traffic, and its main job is to field queries and provide information to people affected by the crisis. It has some usability issues (covered in a BC Tip, on 27 April) and it could be missed by the locals for whom it is intended – a more informative label would help. But it was launched quickly, and must be playing an important role.
Finally, BP America has been using a Twitter feed and Facebook page to point to updated information. Group headquarters does not have its own Twitter feed, but as long as it is ‘tagged’ (try #bp and #oil spill), the exact source does not matter. The need is to push out posts fast and hope they are ‘retweeted’ (that is, rebroadcast) by others.
Subject to social pressure
The opposite side of the web – how BP is being treated online – is a very different story. Here, there are strong parallels with Nestlé. Look at Twitter or Facebook, and you find a mix of neutral and hostile comment – par for the course for a multinational, but raising the tricky issue of how to handle it. There are plenty of calls on Twitter to boycott the group, while the ‘Boycott BP’ page on Facebook says that “11 oil workers have been killed due to BP’s lack of safety and care”.
BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, has said in an interview that the drilling platform was the responsibility of Transocean, so presumably does not accept such accusations. Should the company try to get that across to the social media reading public; or should it leave well alone?
Judging by the response when Nestlé tried to correct its ‘fans’ on its Facebook page, the answer must be the latter. The Switzerland-based group found itself rounded upon, beaten up, and forced to apologise for standing up for itself. Whether it was right or wrong was irrelevant.
Cast in the black hat
The truth is that in the Wild West of social media, business cannot win. As I said in a piece on Nestlé, there is still a strong belief, coming from the early days of the internet, that the online world does not belong to anyone and most certainly not to giant corporations.
It may be that ‘ordinary’ people rally to its side. That happened with Toyota, the car maker forced by safety concerns to recall one of its models, when increasing numbers of people countered criticism by saying how great they thought its vehicles were. Difficult to see that happening with BP (can you love oil?), but there may be a certain backlash.
Meanwhile, BP needs to continue using its web presence with intelligence and restraint; it could be crucial in its fight to fend off threatened pariah status.
First published on 05 May, 2010