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BP and Social Media; Don’t Join the Conversation – Fix Your Problem

Submitted by on June 13, 2010 – 12:39 pm18 Comments

BPGlobalPR, the fake Twitter account mocking BP has , at the time of this writing, over 150,000 followers.  It is dark humor – but it is humorous.

Many people have taken to social media to vent their frustration and anger over the oil spill.  There are myriad blog posts, great ongoing conversation at the OilDrum, and the Twitter hashtags (#oilspill and #oilpocalypse) are a steady stream of regular people discussing the disaster.

BP’s response?  Its war-room legions of crisis managers have bought keywords in order to direct search queries to its own story (“learn more about how BP is helping”), it has tried to shut down the fake Twitter account and it has produced pricey television ads (links to aforementioned are intentionally absent).  In both cases the predictable result has been more bad press and ill will.

I have seen many back channel emails. tweets and posts from the social media cognoscenti on the subject of how BP should be using social media.  In one sense the entire question seems misplaced – after all, who cares how BP uses social media during a crisis of biblical proportion?   Isn’t the more potent question how society can benefit from social media rather than the offending corporation?   The answer to why so much time is spent on what BP can do resides in no small part I believe to the fact that social media consultants earn their bread from corporations.  Fair enough.

But my original and still current opinion is that BP should be doing nothing with social media.   They should be doing nothing other than trying to fix their apocalyptic problem.    Any other actions appear to detract from the task at hand and BP has proven itself incapable of wielding social tools (more on that later).  Beyond my sage words of wisdom for BP, I have a bigger issue with the nature of the advice being given by my colleagues.

A few days ago one of leading proponents of social business, The Dachis Group, posted Would Being More Social Help BP? The article suggests many ways in which BP could utilize social technologies to address the oil spill – and implicitly (as the title suggests) improve their reputation.

In  the technical, jargon-heavy language that typifies the Dachis Group’s approach to social business the post states:

BP can leverage the power of social tools to help their current situation – but only if all current business processes are aligned and calibrated for social activation.

Huh?   The post puts forward a series of one-line ideas for BP – some ideas are as interesting as they are unlikely;  “an app to let people report affected areas and wildlife” for example seems a bit far-fetched when you consider that BP is actively trying to minimize assessments of damage  in order to maintain their prime directive, shareholder value (each barrel may cost BP up to  $40K).   Some ideas are slightly appalling, “a private market research community made up of carefully selected consumers to begin to test public messaging” — do we really need message testing on this one?

This leads me to the heart of my issue with this specific post – and by extension all posts of its ilk that speculate about what BP could do without trying to come to terms with who BP are as an institution.   BP is a profit-engine.  BP is not a social business.   And “helping BP”  has nothing to do with technology, tools, apps or “social calibration.”  Being social as a business is a way of treading lightly because you recognize your interconnection with the world around you.   BP is not structured to be social – it is structured to be profitable at all costs… and structure drives behavior.  The Gulf Coast is currently bearing the brunt of their corporate behavior.  What’s more, the moment to help itself has long passed…

To be clear, I believe that social technologies put selection pressures on businesses over the long run – and will make  it harder and harder for corporate profiteers to thrive.  This to me is the promise of social business — over time, businesses that abide by a social contract (respect, authenticity, reciprocity, earned trust etc.) will outperform those that abide by a strictly corporate (or legal) contract.

BP has consistently shown a tin ear to the outrage, hurt and devastation that they are causing.  That again emanates from a business culture – and no amount of technology will be a balm to that malady.

I understand that BP is a stand-in for “corporate crisis” and social media pundits (I am not exempt) are using it to speculate on just how they might utilize these tools in a crisis setting.  I am also not trying to single out this single post.  But for me it  is exemplary of how much and how often the social media conversation misses the entire point.   The post ends:

Of course, for these efforts to be successful, they would have to be planned, heavily moderated, highly coordinated, and integrated with current data and information systems – then communicated to consumers, franchise owners, the media, and government officials.  In other words, all social business systems would have needed to be in place before disaster struck.

Best of luck with that.  BP’s entire culture appears to have been one in denial about this being possible in the first place (for more on that see Cheney‘s energy task force statement on the riskless nature of deep water drilling)…

The nature of public outrage is not something that BP can (or should) try to game for their own benefit.   The more BP tries to enter a conversation, the more they will be torn apart.   Like the angry mobs that drove Emperor Justinian from the Hippodrome to barricade himself in his palace… this mob doesn’t want conversation… they want blood.

I don’t want BP to “join the conversation.”  I want them to  fix the problem.

18 Comments »

  • [...] Ross has just published an, as usual, insightful post about the oil disaster in the gulf, BP and social [...]

  • Tom Cummings says:

    Thanks for your feedback/response. As I mentioned right off the bat, “no amount of social PR can fix your company’s actual issues”. My post is intended to point out that there are things that can be done to “provide more efficient ways to bring people together to solve problems”. Nowhere do I advocate that BP should “join the conversation”, as you say, or increase their social media presences (in fact, I never mention “social media”).

    I am simply saying that social tools (tools, not campaigns) are more efficient at accomplishing things to help those affected than simply setting up call centers and listing phone numbers.

    As for Justinian — he not only survived the riotous mobs, but also was able to restore his image by reconstructing buildings damaged during the revolts. Time will tell if BP is able to do the same.

  • joshuamross says:

    Tom,
    Thanks for the graceful response. In re-reading it I make your post the target more than I intended. I know many people at your firm – and they have always struck me as high-intelligence, high integrity people.
    My point is that given what I have seen of BP's response and their record of lobbying – they are culturally incapable of using these tools at this point.
    Awesome response re: the somewhat obscure Justinian reference as well! You are absolutely right.

  • [...] BP and Social Media; Don’t Join the Conversation – Fix Your Problem Many people have taken to social media to vent their frustration and anger over the oil spill.  There are myriad blog posts, great ongoing conversation at the OilDrum, and the Twitter hashtags (#oilspill and #oilpocalypse) are a steady stream of regular people discussing the disaster. [...]

  • [...] BP and Social Media; Don’t Join the Conversation – Fix Your Problem Many people have taken to social media to vent their frustration and anger over the oil spill.  There are myriad blog posts, great ongoing conversation at the OilDrum, and the Twitter hashtags (#oilspill and #oilpocalypse) are a steady stream of regular people discussing the disaster. [...]

  • kcarruthers says:

    Fact is that BP might already have destroyed much of their shareholder value – why shouldn't they focus on minimising damage to the environment. Much that is wrong about business nowadays is this obsession with delivering shareholder value at all costs. Perhaps it's time to ask any shareholder about the world they want their kids or grandkids to live in and then recalibrate the notion of shareholder value?

  • joshuamross says:

    Thanks for the comment. No argument here… one point that I would like to make more clearly in a future post – is the notion that individual behaviors – as well as ethics – are easily subordinated in institutions… and It takes a long time for institutions to adjust to changing social norms.

  • kcarruthers says:

    Agreed! One of the points I keep making to people who take the moral high ground from an armchair on the sidelines of an issue is that we tend to conform to group norms (especially when we are either the new person and/or in the minority). It is very hard to go against group norms when one is the newbie. Changing social norms in large institutions is hard. That's why we're still trying to eliminate sexism and racism in the workplace in spite of legislation being passed many years ago in most countries.

  • [...] ΥΓ: Την ίδια ώρα εμφανίζονται και στις ΗΠΑ διάφοροι “Σύμβουλοι επικοινωνίας” που αυτόκλητα προτείνουν στη BP τακτικές για να βελτιώσει την εικόνα της, με το να γίνει “πιο Social”. Πολύ σωστά ο Joshua Michele Ross τους απαντά “Μην συμμετέχετε στο διάλογο, λύστε το πρόβλημα!” [...]

  • [...] BP and Social Media; Don’t Join the Conversation – Fix the Problem [...]

  • [...] BP should fix the problem, not "join the conversation": OpposablePlanets [...]

  • [...] serve.  More often these are big corporations.  Thus the analysis of BP all too often focused on how BP could help itself during the crisis rather than how society at large might better use these tools to come to grips [...]

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