Drilling Down on BP’s Efforts to Improve Brand Perception with Social Media
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From April to June 2010, five million barrels of oil spewed out of BP’s oil reserves into the Gulf of Mexico, covering a body of water the size of a NFL football field, and sinking more than 90 meters deep. It’s been a year-and-a-half since what’s been deemed by federal scientists as the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, and the PR disaster that accompanied the catastrophe.
Sure, BP faced a hefty financial hit as a result of the oil spill. According to the New York Times, its Q1 2011 earnings were $5.48 billion, down $5.6 billion in comparison to Q1 2010, and shares fell 23% from April 2010 to April 2011, in stark comparison to its largest competitors whose shares rose at least 18% during the timeframe. That said, a company worth $350 billion can withstand a drastic hit on its market value. The damage to BP’s image, however, is far more costly and time-intensive to remedy.
The company’s crisis communications approach during the spill was under scrutiny to say the least:
- BP failed to admit responsibility via executives’ statements that positioned the spill as something being done to them rather than something that they did to others
- The company downplayed the criticality of the oil spill
- BP CEO Tony Hayward’s disconcerting vacation photos on his yacht while a damaged rig was dumping thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf’s waters on a daily basis and causing massive environmental causalities
Looking forward, upon recognizing what could have been handled differently, a company like BP can overcome what’s made the list of top 2010 PR disasters, right? Most large corporations that undergo a crisis recover, even if the stigma sticks. JetBlue’s brand recovered after leaving passengers on tarmacs for more than 10 hours in 2007, and the infamous Johnson & Johnson approach to dealing with the Chicago Tylenol murders in 1982 is a PR textbook example of how to deal with a crisis. The question is, has BP learned and acted accordingly from its mistakes to help its brand image moving forward?
BP has increased its amplification of PR, social media and advertising, dating back even to June 2010 before they managed to stop the flow. Recently, in August 2011, BP implemented a YouTube video series portraying Gulf Coast lifestyles, supplemented with Facebook and Twitter posts on the same topic. There was no reference of BP in the videos, but the company purchased YouTube ads to promote the videos, noting that “My Gulf” was sponsored by BP and uploaded the videos in its social media channels. The reasoning made sense in theory – promoting goodwill for the Gulf Coast tourism and seafood business, similar to the YouTube campaign. For example, a Facebook post on BP’s page promotes Alabama’s beaches, but according to ClickZ, the Gulf promotional videos aren’t exactly what they seem:
“BP’s social media efforts have sparked frustration in some corners. Shelley Yates is a marketing rep for The Fish House, a Pensacola Bay seafood restaurant located in northwestern Florida. The Fish House was featured in a video created by Ogilvy PR, handling BP’s social media for the oil spill, that was posted to the petroleum brand’s Facebook and YouTube pages. ‘When they [shot] it, they said it wouldn’t have anything to do with BP,’ Yates said. ‘But then it was put up on BP’s Facebook Page and YouTube channel. And I don’t think it was received well to be honest. I just think it looks too… The whole thing seems pretty contrived.’”
Since October, the BP Facebook page has seen an increase in “likes” from 61,000 to 127,054. BP’s Twitter followers have grown from 28,000 to 31,284. As we say at Text 100 time and time again, social media is much more than “likes” and followers; it’s about engagement, brand perception, share of voice, etc., and with BP it’s no different. The question that remains to be answered is whether BP’s efforts are positively shifting the perception of the brand.
BP still isn’t taking social media lesson number one – be transparent. Earlier this year, @BP_America tweeted from its handle:
Preliminary data from a count of manatees [an aquatic mammal also known as a 'sea cow'] in Florida waters show above-average numbers.
Initially this conveys the message that the spill may not have environmental effects as bad as we may have thought and/or that BP’s cleanup efforts are contributing to the health of the manatee population a year after the spill. However, upon diving further into BP’s claim, the stretch of Florida coast that BP referred to in the tweet was practically untouched by the spill. Furthermore, a researcher at Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission confirmed manatees don’t reside where the spill DID impact the Florida coast. The researcher also told the Guardian “the only reason there was a healthy number of manatees on the day the survey was conducted was because of ‘favorable weather,’” and even if the spill affected an area where the manatees reside, the number of sea cows was even higher in 2010 before the spill, so this wouldn’t have reflected positively on BP anyway.
It’s understandable and recommended that BP attempts to improve its image, and indeed social media engagement can assist a brand in communicating with key stakeholders, impact brand awareness and sentiment. But it needs to be done the right way — with transparency and authenticity being two of the most important elements. Everyone can talk about what BP should have done from the start and following the spill, but the question is, will they change the way they engage? The reality is that BP needs to build consumer confidence if they want to be thought of something other than an oil company who trashed the Gulf of Mexico, and I’m not confident that BP is doing that just yet.