Social Media Works, Just Not for BP

This week, while pondering how BP’s oil spill stacks up against Exxon’s in terms of Google search results, it occurred to me how badly BP is losing the social media war. No bones about it, BP’s online image is in tatters. But just how bad is it? Let’s have a look…

All Your Tweets are Belong to Me

In terms of followers, BPGlobalPR has an impressive 150,874 followers, while BP America limps along with 13,556 (as of this writing). Guess which one is BP’s official Twitter account?

The unofficial BPglobalPR account is the brainchild of a fellow who calls himself “Leroy Stick.” It’s his effort to draw attention to the plight of the Gulf area’s wildlife, industries and residents with biting satire. In 140 letters or less, Leroy delivers several little pokes at BP each day. Here’s a recent example:

We don’t forbid our workers from wearing respirators because it looks bad in photos. We just want to see their smiling faces! #bpsmiles

Smile by smile, chuckle by chuckle, BPglobalPR’s farcical spin on the environmental chaos caused by the spill has inspired an army of followers to retweet and also created a viral phenomenon that’s racking up more followers each day. Contrast BPGlobalPR’s tweets with the earnest-sounding but undoubtedly vetted-by-PR tweets emanating from BP America:

We have made progress on the oil spill. But our job is far from done. We will continue working for as long as it takes to clean it up. ^Tony

Yawn. Not to mention, it does nothing to combat the perception of BP’s impersonal, “tone deaf” response. Little wonder, then, that BP’s Twitter account is largely ignored by the masses.

Face to Facebook

A similar situation is unfolding at Facebook, only minus the satire. The Boycott BP page has amassed a stunning 518,000 followers (by virtue of “liking” the page) — up from 95,000 a couple of weeks ago — while the official BP America page has managed to grab just 21,000 users. The problem, however, is bigger than sheer numbers. Unlike Twitter, where a person can hide behind a screen name, the majority of Boycott BP’s followers have no qualms about letting BP know exactly who they are and that they are not happy with the situation in the Gulf. Have a look for yourself. Behind the majority of wall posts are people foregoing the anonymity of aliases to share the latest news or express their outrage, sometimes in non-work-safe language.

Compared to Twitter, Facebook provides a much broader platform for people to be, well, people. Their interests, passions, likes and dislikes are embodied by their profiles, which are far likelier to be connected with those belonging to people they know, trust and/or share some real-world connection. In short, Facebook users exert the “word-of-mouth” influence that companies both covet and loathe. The ill will aimed at BP on the network is undoubtedly a case of the latter, and the bottom line is that a company that fails to recognize the influence of social media risks ceding control over its image to others.

It goes without saying that the scope of this disaster transcends concerns about online reputations and social networking savvy. However, on Twitter, more people are viewing BP through Leroy Stick’s lens than the company’s own. It’s a situation that will haunt the firm for years to come and only grow worse as social search takes off — unless BP works aggressively to incorporate social media into its outreach efforts. As it stands now, the company’s website merely links off to Twitter and Facebook accounts that parrot the company line and are devoid of personality — essentially a one-sided conversation, and a boring one at that.

Until BP comes to terms with the “social” part of social media — real conversations and engagement — its online struggles will persist for months, if not years. That is, if it survives that long.

Question of the week

Did BP bungle its online response to the oil spill?