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.