BP’s PR Push to Implement a Pull Strategy

Posted on September 2, 2010. Filed under: disaster response, Social Media | Tags: , , , , |

The embattled oil giant BP, which has in recent history repackaged itself as an environmental visionary by calling itself “Beyond Petroleum,” is now facing a future with an unwelcome legacy: forefather of the worst oil spill in American history. From the onset of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, BP’s communicators fought an uphill battle against an unrelenting backdrop of an ever-present live TV image of the untamed well head — while its infuriatingly vague plans prompted media outlets to pile on.

Worse yet, BP’s public relations team had to ease a riled media landscape early in the crisis after BP CEO Tony Hayward said he “wanted his life back.” And if BP didn’t have enough headaches, the company was brandjacked when a new satirical Twitter handle (@BPGlobalPR) surfaced posing as BP’s official PR machine, both deriding and frustrating its communications efforts. In fact, the fake site attracted tens of thousands of followers, far and away outnumbering followers on BP’s real Twitter stream.

According to crisis communications professionals (Slate.com,5 May), BP’s traditional PR push strategy, including press releases, morning-show interviews and official statements, produced mixed results; however, the energy company’s social media pull efforts provided copious amounts of information and engaged onlookers who may have been convinced BP was intent on doing right by those victimized by the spill.

All in all, BP won plaudits from communications experts for the way in which it leveraged the Web and social media to quell the crisis. For instance, BP seized Facebook as a news distribution hub, where it updated twice-daily real-time results of the amount of oil collected. BP also posted a video to discuss the health dangers posed to oil cleanup crews and another of congressional hearings on the spill. And on Twitter, BP tweeted a hotline for people to call if they see oiled wildlife.

But at the same time, companies in BP’s position need to be accessible and transparent to other media that support extended narratives and more complex explanations such as traditional print and Web sources. Without a doubt, the vast majority of Twitter accounts will post links to stories published by traditional outlets, but, in crisis PR mode, companies under siege will also need channels like microblogs to respond faster with updates and new developments.

PR Week (19 August 2010; subscription required) indicated that a new survey from Gartner Communications found 84.8% of companies worldwide have a general crises plans in place, but only 20.7% have social media crisis plans set. As social media becomes an even more critical tool in the corporate crisis playbook, crisis communicators and PR pros will need adequate tools to measure and monitor the blogosphere’s response to a calamity like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in order to deliver a clear, comprehensive and relevant message – with the hope of reframing the story.

And while BP’s share price has seen a mini recovery, it remains under pressure, making its long-term communications strategy even more critical – with an engaged social media dialog likely figuring into a key part of the mix. BP doesn’t deserve a victory lap just yet, but it should be commended for its work in conjunction with its public relations agency for executing an impressive on-the-fly pull strategy.  

Brian Panton is a quality assurance specialist and report writer in Washington, DC.

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