The Gulf of Mexico oil spill that has oil giant BP scrambling to save
its brand — and possibly its entire business — has been juicy fodder
for those involved in PR and marketing. Of particular interest: how the
company is responding to the onslaught online.

From crisis communications experts to social media gurus, just about
everyone has suggestions for BP. But what about BP’s internet strategy
overall? I decided it was worth a high-level look at the company’s
efforts to stem the tide of online criticism.

The Good

While ‘BP‘ and ‘good news‘ don’t quite go together, if there’s any good news for the embattled oil company, it’s this: it hasn’t ignored the internet. Even though BP is at a significant disadvantage, it hasn’t thrown up its hands and waived the white flag. It seems to understand that the internet is a crucial part of distributing a message. That’s a good thing.

The Bad

The bad news for BP is that it isn’t maximizing its efforts to distribute a message. Take paid search. The company has the right idea: try to make sure that individuals searching for information about the oil spill are exposed to BP’s message. But unfortunately the execution is lacking in some areas.

In an AdAge opinion piece that touches on BP’s paid search campaign, Motivity Marketing CEO Kevin M. Ryan points out:

My issue with BP’s online presence is less about spending the money and more about using search as a true information delivery vehicle.

If I were managing the BP information initiative, I’d skip the wholesale dynamic keyword and web address insertion tools in lieu of a more genuinely managed information delivery program. I’d link to the relevant content I’ve built and helpful information instead of sending every searcher into the same page. I’d use the ad dollars to truly help people find what they are looking for instead of sending them to a catch-all page.

These are good suggestions that BP might want to heed as it looks to make sure that searchers hear its side of the story.

The Ugly

If BP’s paid search efforts are “clumsy“, the company’s social media efforts are downright ugly. While the company was right not to take a heavy-handed approach to the BPGlobalPR Twitter account, for instance, ceding Twitter to a satirical critic is hardly ideal either.

Even less ideal: the company’s attempts to win over consumers using social media. On YouTube, for instance, the company has posted an apology video, and is paying for ads that ask consumers to ‘Friend BP on YouTube‘. The problem with this: now is not the time nor the place. BP doesn’t need friends; it needs to clean up what everybody agrees is a huge mess. Only once it has done that can it realistically hope to start the long process of regaining trust. From this perspective, BP should consider leaving social media alone, at least in the traditional sense.

Of course, that advice is somewhat contrarian. Some suggest that BP’s problem is that it isn’t using enough social media ‘buzzwords‘ or engaging in the now-clichéd ‘conversations‘ social media experts implore companies to engage in. But consumers aren’t stupid. Let’s face it: few are interested in holding a two-way ‘conversation‘ with BP. People are angry, and want action, not words.

Other folks suggest that a more robust social media presence “in peacetime” could have insulated BP from public scorn. But that is naive, wishful thinking. Even if BP had been the most popular brand on Twitter, it wouldn’t have meant much in the face of what may be the worst man-made oil spill in history. Nothing it could have said or tweeted would have prevented the backlash BP has seen. After all, trust and goodwill take a long time to earn but are always liable to be lost in an instant. Social media does not change that.

BP’s Real Goal

BP faces perhaps one of the greatest corporate crises ever and the internet will be a valuable tool in ensuring that it can tell its side of the story. Yet it needs to be realistic: much of the story it would like to tell has yet to be written. Even though the company would like to turn around popular sentiment right now, it can’t. It will be a target for consumers and various interest groups for some time.

The fact is that all big crises of this nature have a lifecycle and they usually start with public outrage that won’t quickly die down no matter how much ammunition is used. Given this, BP’s top immediate PR goal needs to be realistic. And that goal is simple: provide information about its efforts to stop the flow of oil and deal with the very big mess it has promised to clean up. The internet has a prominent role to play in achieving this goal, and it will have a prominent role to play once BP is in a position to move from cleaning up the Gulf to cleaning up its image.

In the meantime, the company should accept that the internet will not deliver ‘friends‘ or meaningful ‘conversations‘ anytime soon. It will have to earn those, and must understand that its efforts on the internet won’t pay dividends for the foreseeable future.

Photo credit: Mike Licht via Flickr.