Twitter, Facebook and the BP oil spill

You are the editor. What’s the story of the day from the BP oil spill?

A bird coated with oil?

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Or the release of a pelican that’s been cleaned of oil?

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The battle to stop the oil spill is nearly being eclipsed by the effort to control the story being told.

The disaster is doing more than fouling that corner of the world. It’s soiled the notion that social networking can be a cure for what ails business. British Petroleum — BP — has set up an aggressive public relations effort in the wake of the Deep Horizon disaster, including a Facebook page and Twitter account. But many people aren’t buying the product.

Take, for example, the comments attached to its Facebook entry earlier today.

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Ellen Rossano knows something about being in the eye of the PR storm during an oil spill. The former Coast Guard public information officer was on duty when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska. She now is a “crisis communications” consultant in Boston.

“I advise my clients that they have to get the truth out as quickly as possible. One of my common-sense rules is you just can’t lie about what’s going on,” she told me. “You’re going to be found out. You can’t say ‘no comment’ anymore. It implies guilt. It implies you’re hiding something. You can always say to the media and the public, ‘Here’s what I can tell you.'”

But that only works if the public thinks you’re being either (a) truthful or (b) competent. That’s not happening in this case. When a CEO says that the environmental damage from the spill will be “modest,” very little else he has to say will get a favorable ear.

And the public is often put into the position to have to guess who is lying, because someone is

Take this “tweet” awhile ago from BP

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And compare it to this one an hour before that from Mac McClelland, a reporter for Mother Jones.

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She wrote about it today on her blog:


When I tell Barbara I am a reporter, she stalks off and says she’s not talking to me, then comes back and hugs me and says she was just playing. I tell her I don’t understand why I can’t see Elmer’s Island unless I’m escorted by BP. She tells me BP’s in charge because “it’s BP’s oil.”

“But it’s not BP’s land.”

Trying to stop the effect of a reporter with a blog and/or a Twitter account is about as difficult as trying to stop gushing oil from the ocean floor.

But mobilizing social networking and the Web is an are where Rossano gives the effort high marks. “I’m thrilled beyond imagining at how the Joint Information Center has been transparent,” she says. “They’re posting situation reports everyday; there’s not much more they could be doing to be transparent, and I think that’s a phenomenal shift. The fact that anybody from the media and public can go to the sites and download video and audio … it’s just a huge improvement.”

“The communication things that BP has done so far have not worked,” counters J. Brian Houston, the program director at the Terrorism and Disaster Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. “Trying to downplay the size of the spill hasn’t worked (that video of the oil and gas well pouring into the gulf that was recently released is horrifying) and attempting to place the blame on Halliburton and Deepwater Horizon was not the way to go (regardless of who is actually to blame at this point, BP is the point company for this and is getting and will get the blame. And if in six months or one year from now we learn that Deepwater was to blame, the damage will already be done to BP so it will not matter).”

Houston recommended these steps for BP:

· Admit this is a significant ecological disaster

· Be clear that all efforts are underway to stop the oil being released in the gulf, to keep the oil from reaching shore or gulf streams or whatever, and to remove as much of the oil from the gulf as possible.

· Describe what those efforts are. Put them on the BP website. Update them.

· Be vocal about asking the U.S. Government for help, assistance, input, etc. Make the operation from this point out be a BP-US government operation.

· Be clear that BP will do whatever it can to figure out what happened here and to do what needs to be done to make sure this never happens again.

· Be honest that for a company that has a beyond petroleum vision, this accident is in conflict with that vision, but also a reason getting beyond petroleum is the goal. And hopefully what comes from this is better processes, regulation, etc. that make oil drilling safer.

· Repeat.

  • I don’t think any amount of PR is ever going to fix the mess BP is in. It is hard to cover up incompetence of the magnitude. They should just give up and stop the spill and then they should all go to jail for crimes against the planet,

  • jon

    so let me understand this.. An oil company, drilling, caused a mess…

    They weren’t doing anything illegal, Some piece of equipment failed, possible cement made and laid by Haliburton, possibly something by BP, or something else…

    So the executives, who did not place the cement, who did not manufacture, and had very little to do with the actual operation, should face jail time?

    Seems a bit reactionary. It’s a terrible tragedy, but both the original device, designed to hold back the pressure, and the secondary “safety device” failed to stop the flow… was there an issue with cut corners in the manufacturing? we don’t know… But we are ready to convict these people as a society already.

    Yes, they should stop the oil, yes they are responsible for cleaning it up, yes it is a terrible mess, and the area will probably take a very long time to recover… But shouting at BP, and Republicans and Democrats gets us no where on any of that.

    lets just try to stay a bit realistic here, no one did anything illegal, no one person is to blame (so far as we can tell, so far.)

    Lets hope as bob suggested above, we clean it up, and make sure it never happens again, it’s really the best outcome for this, prison isn’t going to happen.

    People learning their lessons? maybe.

    Drive to a cleaner source of energy? maybe.

    But screaming about it, and calling for jail time, or executives to go swimming in oil, it really isn’t helping (calling them on their lies… probably a good thing.)

  • Bob Collins

    Read this and watch the video. This was the 60 Minutes interview with a worker on the rig. It was fascinating.

    I think this is why some people are suggesting a criminal probe re: negligence. Apparently the blowout preventer had given evidence that it wasn’t working and the BP folks overruled the Deepwater Horizon mgmt and ordered the drilling to continue. Also — the gentleman asserts — the usual precautions to prevent blowouts was ignored against warnings.

  • Tyler

    Bob, your link in the comment is broken.

  • Bob Collins

    Should work now.

  • DeAnn Fisch

    That’s it, I’ve had it, its Day 46, give or take. I’ve been a regular BP customer until recently. The distruction of the platform, the spill, and loss of life illustrate a lack of respect for the BP oil platform workers and Gull coast residents. The fumbling attempts to stop it show a lack of preparation to address spills quickly and effectively and may demonstrate operation of oil drilling on the margins of ethical business.

    I apologize to American BP frachisees and employees affected by decreased sales. However, Americans have and can express themselves with their dollars. As of today I am boycotting BP products and I invite others to join me.