NPR photo illustration: A user browses the BP Twitter site.
NPR photo illustration: A user browses the BP Twitter site. Wayne Huang/NPR
In a video on BP's newly formed YouTube channel, a company vice president stands on a sandy beach and talks about the size of the company's cleanup efforts: He tells viewers they have 25,000 people in five different states, working out of 15 different locations. Behind him, workers clean along the shoreline with shovels and garbage bags.
The video is just one of a few dozen on the site dedicated to showing the company's cleanup efforts. Like BP's new Flickr channel, and its Facebook and Twitter pages, YouTube has allowed the company to send its messages directly to the public, without passing through the filter of traditional media.
Public relations expert Chris Lehane has been dubbed the "Master of Disaster" for his work for the Clinton White House. He says social media sites provide a great outlet for companies in times of crisis, but they also introduce additional pitfalls to the crisis management game. He says BP has been good about using 21st century technology to spread its messages, but the company lost credibility when those messages didn't stand the test of time.
"I think BP did a very good job at identifying the communication outlets that exist in the new digital world," Lehane says. "But I think they have fallen into the age-old, Crisis 101, do-not-do list, which is to rush out information that turns out not to be accurate."
Lehane says in times of crisis, companies used to hurry to have statements ready for the nightly news or the national paper. But now, with a 24-7 news cycle, there's even more pressure for companies to push information out quickly, sometimes before they solidify their message.
A BP spokesman says that's not what's happening at his company. He says it puts the same information on its social media sites that it releases to the traditional media outlets.
To some, that's the real flaw in BP's strategy. Geoff Livingston, who runs a social media marketing company, says when he looks at the BP America Facebook page, he sees a company that's just talking at people. That's fine for an ad campaign, but it doesn't work well on Facebook, where people expect a dialogue.
"When you have a two-way channel like Facebook or Twitter, you're expected to have a conversation," Livingston says, "and eventually when you don't have a conversation with people and you just put out messages and ignore them, people feel like you're not really there."
Livingston says when people feel ignored, their anger just grows. And that anger is particularly visible online.
"They see their friends getting angry, and everyone gets angrier," Livingston says.
Katie Oliver, from Viroqua, Wis., visited the BP Facebook page and wrote a message telling the company to "pay up, clean up and get out." But she says she's more drawn to sites like the Boycott BP page. The tone is negative on these sites, but at least they're telling her something she can do about the oil spill — even if boycotting might not be the right answer.
"People want to be a part of something," Oliver says, "and I think that's why the anti [BP] ones are going to have more of an effect on people."
Other sites have tapped into the public's anger. An anonymous user set up a fake BP Twitter account under the official-sounding name "BPGlobalPR." The account lampoons BP execs and cleanup efforts.
Here's a recent post: "If you must cry over this oil spill, please don't do it in the gulf. Saltwater ruins our oil."
That fake Twitter account has 10 times more followers than BP's official Twitter stream.