Using Social Media – Twitter, YouTube, etc. – For Crisis PR. What BP America Could Have Done Differently To Respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion

Erik Saas at MediaPost wrote a recent story about how BP America could have handled the communications concerning the current oil spill disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Saas’ story looks at some of BP’s muddled attempts to use social media to handle the crisis.

Some of the comments to Saas’ story are interesting. I wonder if some of the people commenting are communications professionals? It’s unrealistic to expect PR people to go out on boats to fight the oil spill or deploy floating booms to try and stop the spread of the oil.

What BP’s communications team could have done is communicate often, early, and authentically – to convey information about what BP is doing to fight the oil spill. Sure, this post’s title references social media, and Saas’ article is focused on BP’s use of social media. Yet, social media is simply one of many tools enabling companies and brands to communicate with during a crisis.

So what could BP have done using their social media tools?

1. Have a crisis PR plan. Very important. When the shit hits the fan, which it will eventually with any company regardless of size, you need a written crisis PR plan that you’ve a) written down, b) reviewed with the entire management team, and c) that you read at least once a month and update as necessary.

2. Own their brand on Twitter. Duh. Currently twitter.com/BP belongs to some dude named Bryan Pendleton. It sure makes it hard to communicate on Twitter if you haven’t even secured the Twitter ID that most people will look for if they’re trying to find your company or brand. Would you know to search for BP_America on Twitter? I wouldn’t and I doubt most others would either.

3. Use the social media tools in your toolbox. Don’t be afraid to engage even if you’re delivering bad news. In the end, people will hate you more if you stonewall vs. delivering whatever news you’ve got. And, yes, I understand that when you have a burning oil platform that’s threatening to sink, you may not have all the information that you’d like to have. You might not be able to answer every question.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20th. There was nary a tweet from BP America concerning the explosion until April 27th. 7 days? On second thought, maybe BP America should just cancel their Twitter account. 7 days is completely and totally unacceptable.

4. Engage, engage, engage – overcommunicate. When the oil rig exploded, and the company’s emergency responders arrived on the scene and assessed the damage, the crisis PR plan should have been enacted immediately.

If you think the crisis will be as large as the BP America oil spill, create a dedicated news-update page on your website with a prominent link on your home page.

Write a media alert encapsulating the basic facts that you know. Issue the media alert, set up interviews for your CEO regardless if all he can say is we know 2 facts – here they are. “The oil rig is burning, and we’re working hard to control the flames, and that’s the extent of my knowledge.”

Post the media alert on your website – run it by an in-house SEO specialist or your SEO consultant to maximize keywords and phrases that people will be using to search for information about the oil spill. Tweet links to the media alert every 30 minutes. Update your Facebook page (you don’t have a Facebook page? Create one on the fly!) with the text of the media alert and a link to your web page.

Record a video with your CEO articulating the key facts that you know. Upload the video to all the video sites you can via Tubemogul or directly with each site. Tweet links to the video on YouTube every 30 minutes. Link the video on your Facebook page. Embed the video on your dedicated crisis response PR page.

Rinse, repeat every 2-3 hours with a new media alert, again articulating the facts that you know. Yes, I’m very aware that BP is a profitable, public company and there are lawyers screaming that nothing should be said. Hopefully, you’re a CMO or CEO who will ignore the lawyers and communicate. Not take blame for things that are not your fault. C-o-m-m-u-n-i-c-a-t-e — What you know and what you are doing to deal with the issue.

5. Social media emergency squad – Break out the coffee and haul in the mattresses. For a crisis the size of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, you’re crisis PR team is going to be spending a lot of time and energy communicating via social media.

Every piece of content that I mentioned above, Twittering links, posting videos to YouTube and multiple video sites, Facebook page updates, has the potential to create comments – both negative and positive. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Respond to those comments as a representative of your company. Leave the corporate speak behind and talk informally. Not unprofessionally, informally – there is a difference. Again, tell what you know and what you’re doing.

Don’t even think of pulling a Nestle – criticizing and being sarcastic with your critics. If it makes you feel better, acknowledge their anger and state the facts as you know them.

6. Hashtag response – A continuation of the previous bullet. Monitor relevant hashtags – #BP #Oilspill #GulfCoastdisaster #Greedyoilexecs – and respond as outlined above. Yes, respond, individually and repeatedly. Is that over kill? Maybe. But do you want to make a full-scale communications response to a crisis? If so, then you need to be communicating where people are communicating – comment sections, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Again, use common sense here. Don’t get into back-and-forth arguments with someone via Twitter if they’re not going to be convinced that you’re conveying facts and information. Now’s not the time to engage in a public debate about global petroleum usage. Respond once, maybe twice, then move on.

7. Wikipedia – Keep an eye on your Wikipedia page. If critics of your company jump in with inaccurate information, correct the page with citation.

8. Convey volunteer information – this is potentially risky, but it’s worth mentioning. As we all now sadly know, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the resulting oil spill is a monumental environmental disaster, and it’s frankly beyond the scope of BP America and its employees to contain the damage of the oil on wildlife.

BP could regularly post via their website and social media channels volunteer opportunities for people to help with the disaster relief.

Those are my crisis PR strategies for BP America written in about an hour. But, I’ve written more than one crisis PR plan, and utilizing social media tools for crisis PR is something I’ve been thinking about – and using.

The big question is, what would you add? What would you have done differently? How would your advice differ? I’d love to hear from you.