Just like late night talk show hosts who salivate over a fresh political sex scandal, professional communicators can’t stop analyzing and talking about BP’s public relations work during the current Gulf Coast oil spill disaster. More to the point, they can’t shut up about BP’s inability to relate to the public, and its poor use of digital and social tools available.

It seems a communications or social media conference now isn’t complete without obligatory mentions of the “BP PR Disaster,” complete with sly references to verbal gaffes by BP CEO Tony Hayward. The still-unfolding environmental disaster has already been fodder for reams of blog posts, articles and dissections.

Everything BP has done over the past two months has been picked apart and critiqued. From the retaining of outside PR firms, to the company’s (lack of) use of social channels and the hiring of a Bush-Cheney-era communicator, BP has done little to impress the critics.

The move to hire Anne Womack-Kolton, a former aide to Dick Cheney, caused an Economist blogger to nearly blow a gasket:

The first law of disaster-management in the United States is that you appoint somebody from the “in” party rather than the “out” party. The second law is that you avoid anybody with connections to George Bush and Dick Cheney.

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To top it off, some of the most effective critiques of the company and its clean-up are coming in 140 character bursts from the unknown acerbic voice behind the satirical Twitter account, @BPGlobalPR. The caustic and laugh-out-loud funny nature of the tweets sets off a chain of retweets, creating online waves that reach much farther and faster than the spread of the oil (or BP’s message for that matter).

The general consensus in the public relations industry is that BP ran its crisis communications in the same ham-fisted manner they’ve run the clean-up operation in the Gulf. But are pundits being too hard on BP? And what can we learn about conducting PR in the digital age from this example? Below are my five suggested lessons, and a list of links to 15 must-read articles about BP’s response to the crisis.

Five Big Lessons

It’s become all too easy to knock around the communicators at BP. The harsh reality is most major corporations and organizations would have reacted in the same textbook manner. This spill has changed the way communicators will plan for and execute strategies around crises of all kinds. New questions are being asked and long-held assumptions are being challenged. Here are the top five communications trends I see coming from the BP Gulf spill:

  1. Consider the ethics of social channels. BP makes a regular habit of turning off the comment function on social media channels and not allowing other views to be shared on its profiles. This is presumably to help control the message and avoid issues of liability — but how should Facebook or YouTube react to this? Twitter said it wouldn’t touch the satirical account mocking the oil company, but in early June it asked the author to make it clear they were not connected to BP. Are social networks simply platforms anyone can use to distribute a message, even if that message isn’t 100 percent accurate or there is no room for response or debate?
  2. One vs. many spokespeople. How would a Zappos, IBM, Starbucks or Dell (to use a few oft-cited examples of more open and connected corporate cultures) handle a BP-like situation with their brands? Classic communications strategy suggests to follow BP’s lead and anoint a single spokesperson. But these go-to models of crisis control are challenged when hundreds speak for a brand, even if informally. The Internet is an organizational tool. If an organization facing a crisis is socially connected and understands the networks they have created, they’ll know what to do. The clearest way forward is to ask your online team members to follow some basic guidelines about when and how to respond in the specific situation at hand. The three main tasks for the formal and informal social media teams are: Thank people, correct facts, and share updated information. Remember to keep responses short, accurate and polite, and to link to a place where aggregated information about the crisis can be found. Remind your online team not to apologize for the incident, never to debate or engage in defense or explanations.
  3. Tactics are not directly transferable across mediums. A common refrain from many analysts is that BP ripped pages from an old playbook to use on the new field of communications. Good communicators understand that communications strategy must be tool-agnostic, but that tactics are tool-specific. In other words, BP used classic communications methods in new mediums. This dissonance was immediately seized upon by organizations like Greenpeace and the satirical BP account on Twitter.
  4. The old paradigm of broadcasting to persuade is being challenged. BP’s communicators took to YouTube and created what seemed like television ads. They would have been better served by attempting to stimulate a conversation, providing a realistic portrait of the work being done, or engaging in a live, viewer-centric Q&A session. Overall, the BP website and spokespeople lacked a human or colloquial tone.
  5. Sometimes you just can’t win. BP has failed to realize that sometimes trying to “win” PR battles actually results in an organization losing the overall communications war. Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image and the author of “Six Pixels of Separation” suggested in his Vancouver Sun/Montreal Gazette column that perhaps BP never really had a chance. “If the basis of social media is based on trust and credibility, how can BP be expected to engage and truly connect?” he wrote. “For now, it’s hopeless. But that was probably also true long before a drop of oil ever touched the Gulf of Mexico.”

15 Great Articles About BP’s Response

In the course of reading over 100 articles about BP’s PR response, I came across several pieces that offered valuable insight and information. Here are the 15 best:

  1. Why social media won’t help BP: Vancouver Sun
  2. BPs woes start a the top: Globe and Mail
  3. Failures made worse by PR mistakes: MSNBC
  4. BP PR blunder carries high political cost: Reuters
  5. BP and the long tail PR crisis: SMI
  6. BP is attempting to cram the square peg of the traditional mass media into the round hole of social media: Derek Devries
  7. BP can’t tweet: Merriam
  8. Adweek reports on BP’s major social media push — with disabled comments: Truthout
  9. Do social media complaints make a difference to a brand?: ComMetrics
  10. BP should fix the problem, not “join the conversation”: OpposablePlanets
  11. What BP should be doing with social media: Socialnomics
  12. Review of BPs social media campaign: Bruce Clay
  13. BP’s Gulf PR disaster – give them a break!: PR Disasters
  14. Social media won’t help big, bad BP: Canwest
  15. BP Social Media Response to the Spill: Social Technology Strategy slide show

Ian Capstick is a progressive media consultant. He worked for a decade in Canadian politics supporting some of Canada’s most charismatic leaders. He is passionate about creating social change through communications. Ian appears weekly on CBC TV’s Power & Politics, weekly radio panels, and is regularly quoted online and off about the evolution of public relations in a connected world. He describes his small communications firm, MediaStyle.ca, as a blog with a consulting arm.

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