BP, Crisis Communications, and Social Media

Crisis communications has evolved with the invention of social media, how (and how quickly) companies must respond in the event of a crisis is complex and swift. With real-time updates becoming part of the norm in the SERPs, a company in crisis should always be part of the current conversation.

Staring at the fish tank at my chiropractor’s office this week, I realized that BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the resulting sour of public opinion is an opportunity to look at social media and crisis communication.

But before we jump into the heavy conversation, here’s a little bit of comedy to loosen you up (this whole oil spill thing gets me pretty wound up, too):

And now for the topic at hand: Is BP doing as good of a job as it could with crisis communications, and is it using all the most important mediums wisely?

It may have taken a little while for BP to get its social media strategy up and running, but the company has actually done a pretty good job of identifying the avenues needed to reach people. Let’s run down the social media and online communications checklist for BP:

  • Create a section of the corporate site dedicated to the event and how BP is managing it. (Check)
  • Establish bloggers on the forefront to report on how the spill is affecting the area. (Check)
  • Dedicate the Facebook account to keep the public updated daily on efforts and allow people to weigh in. (Check)
  • Repurpose its Twitter account to include all the important contact information, daily tweets on progress and to answer questions. (Check)
  • Create a channel on YouTube to share critical videos on all the areas of life that have been affected by the spill and how BP is managing it. (Check)
  • Utilize Flickr to showcase images of what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico. (Check)
  • Run a depressing live stream of millions of gallons of oil spewing into the ocean 24 hours a day. (Check)

When it comes down to it, looks like BP is pretty plugged in with the tools it chose and how it’s maximizing the value of them. BP seems to be doing a decent job of transparency by allowing the public to see and weigh in on the disaster first hand, via BP. Let’s take a closer look at how the company is using social media avenues to communicate in times of crisis.


Before the disaster at Deepwater Horizon, BP America’s Twitter page had few tweets monthly, but nothing to write home about. And even though the explosion occurred on April 20, BP didn’t give its first tweet on the disaster until April 27, simply saying:

BP tweet

No doubt the company was assessing the severity of the situation and what its communication strategy was going to be before it said anything. But was it too late in the game? Seven days can be like seven years in crisis time – especially if the company was waiting for the public reaction first before responding. [At the very least, they seem to finally be making headway with their actual Twitter account versus the satirical and more popular @BPGlobalPR. —Virginia]

Since its first tweet on the oil spill, BP has used Twitter on a daily basis to send updates on what it’s doing in the Gulf and sometimes even answering questions from its followers. BP listed all the important contact information on its Twitter page for various response-team departments as well as its other online sites so people can stay connected in several ways. All in all, looks like they’re doing a pretty good job with Twitter.

BP Twitter page


BP America on Facebook followed similar suit to Twitter. Prior to the explosion, its Facebook page had few updates – maybe once every month or so. BP’s first communication was on May 2, just a few days after the initial tweet.

BP Facebook post

Since then, BP has posted updates on its Facebook page nearly every day – even on weekends and holidays. Every day, BP reports how much oil has been recovered in one day and then the grand total over time. The company also set up contact, news and notes tabs on its page, where fans can comment (and it includes the good, the bad and the ugly – sans censorship). Seems like BP is trying to being transparent by stepping aside to let the public vent.

It even looks as though it has more than 30,000 people who “like” BP’s page on Facebook. Judging by the comments on the company’s profile though, this might be a perfect example where the “like” feature on Facebook gets a little vague.

BP on Facebook

YouTube and Flickr

BP’s YouTube channel is extremely thorough. It has videos categorized by the latest response, beaches and cleanup, claims and economy, health and safety, restoration of the environment and wildlife. It even feature’s actor Kevin Costner’s amazing oil-spill invention in action. Yes, Kevin Costner is a genius and inventor. And he has the money to prove it.

BP says it created the YouTube channel to “engage the public in an informative conversation and dialogue about our efforts associated with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

And boy, is there discussion. I’ve seen several responses by BP on peoples’ comments, saying, “We understand that people are angry; however, we ask that your comments follow our commenting policy, which is listed in full in our Latest News section on the BP YouTube Channel page. We ask that conversations on this page be constructive, respectful, and contain language that is appropriate for all groups and ages. Thank you.”

Also looks like there’s some outcry about the removal of comments by BP on the channel. What do you think, should BP be able to moderate comments on its own turf? (P.S., Tony Hayward: spray tan much?)

Tony Hayward on YouTube

At BP America’s photostream on Flickr, the company has images nicely organized by topics such as community outreach, wildlife (I give them props for showing a couple really sad images, although I’ve seen worse from other sources), cleanup and more (I have to say though that the “claims” section isn’t very riveting … I guess they just wanted to document something was being done there).

Paid Search

I just did a few quick searches on “oil spill”, “oil explosion” and “gulf oil” to see how BP was stacking up with its paid search efforts. Two of the three search terms put the company’s site front and center on the sponsored links results above the organic listings. Second in the running was an environmental group, with other similar organizations occupying the side-bar sponsored links area.

Google SERP for oil spill

Image Beyond the Web

What happens when online, broadcasting and the real world collide in not so nice ways?
With BP doing social media by the book, you think they’d come out smelling like roses. But what about when you have to trust the company message to an executive that maybe isn’t as strategic as his PR team? Just one tiny slip up can erase a world of effort in the public’s mind.

Maybe it’s just a language barrier (“small people” might be perfectly acceptable vernacular in the executive’s homeland of Sweden when referring to “the others”), but I can just see the communications team back at headquarters cringing when they saw this. Hey, that’s the human aspect of crisis communications and it’s not always as methodical as its online counterpart.

Crisis communications spans channels – online, print, television, the real world – so who (and what) delivers the message, how it’s delivered, and how the company and its representatives present themselves in person is extremely important in situations like these.

And we must remember that different audiences are reached through each channel. So someone receiving all the news from traditional media sources may have an entirely different perspective on the situation than someone following BP on Twitter or someone working or living in the Gulf. A company has much more control over the message via its online efforts.

So, if you’ve damaged your brand through broadcasting, can you redeem yourself online? And if you’ve damaged your reputation in the real world, does your online or broadcast presence even matter?

Less Talky, More Pluggy

Crisis communications isn’t just about talking. It’s about communicating plans of action. And from the looks of it, seems like there’s a lot of action happening on the forefront by BP. But the biggest thing on peoples’ minds is, Why haven’t they been able to do more? It’s so bad right now and unfortunately, it’s still so far from over.

Strictly speaking, with regards to how BP has used the Internet for crisis communication, I think it’s doing well. And even though the company is criticized for not being 100 percent transparent, you have to realize that there’s a level of control that highlights the positive and downplays the negative in any communications/PR campaign.

A company of that size is bound to hit some snags along the way with consistency in communication, but one thing is for certain: this disaster can teach us all a thing or two when it comes to preparing for a self-inflicted crisis, how to manage the varying communication mediums and using social media to its fullest to keep the public engaged.

Jessica Lee is the founder and chief creative for bizbuzzcontent Inc., a marketing boutique that focuses on digital content strategy and professional writing services for businesses.

See Jessica's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (17)
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17 Replies to “BP, Crisis Communications, and Social Media”


It’s very useful … But, how is BP integrated this social media message with federal state website content (Alabama, Lousiana, etc)?

Hi Aang, I’m not sure what you mean, can you explain a little further? Thanks!


Thank you for expressing BP’s efforts with social media in your blog, Jessica.
Social media used definitely helped BP keep in constant communication with anyone concerned about the crisis. The fact that they took advantage of each and every channel expressed their credibility as a large company. Yes, some of the messages should have been phrased differently, but the fact that they were channeling their updates through all these social media vehicles was a way to show their concern. This is not me agreeing with the amount of time it took them to fix the problem, just stating that the social media was used correctly.

Melanie, good morning and thank you for joining in on the conversation!

Thanks for your insights.

In my own research on the impact of New Media on Crisis Communication, I have found that the New Media has impacted the information environment by (a) compressing the media cycle; (b) creating a perfect information environment; and (c) providing multiple platforms for news and imformation. As a result of this, effective Crisis Communications must now comprise the following 5 key elements – open, timely, truthful, broadly communicated and internet presence.

Well said, Justin. Thank you for sharing!

Hi, Andy, thank you! I would also love to know who’s behind the campaign and all the details that went into it. We could all learn from it.

Nice exposition of the various social media channels that BP has fired up since the disaster started.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty apparent that social media/crisis comm/PR is just an extension of the exec management who doesn’t have their act together. In this case, it just looks like they’ve magnified their faults for all to see.

It could be a good case study if we got some insight into how their crisis comms might’ve been handled better.

Virginia Nussey

Unfortunately, it’s pretty apparent that social media/crisis comm/PR is just an extension of the exec management who doesn’t have their act together. In this case, it just looks like they’ve magnified their faults for all to see.

Word. Wonder what new CEO Robert Dudley will bring to the table.

BP are obviously attempting to do all they can to minimise the PR disaster, whether they’ll succeed in this is another matter. It is amazing though that someone would refer to the “small people” and think that thats perfectly acceptable. It only takes a few gaffs to bring a company to its knees.

Hi, Mike, thanks for reading. I guess everyone seems “small” when you’re at the top of a global oil giant. But maybe the company’s communications team could have done a better job of training its spokespeople by providing a list of things you don’t say to Americans … LOL.

Thanks for taking the time to contribute, Simon!

The last point is the pertinent one. Plug that leak, and that’d be the greatest public relations triumph they can hope for!

Hi, Andy — I hear that! Thanks for your perspective.

It’s good to hear an objective voice using BP as a lesson in social media and web strategy because you’re right, public opinion of BP aside, they are doing a lot of things really well right now online. I think a lot of the outrage over BP’s internet presence lately has to do with a fundamental lack of understanding by the average joe about how Google and other search engines actually work. Howard Fineman actually suggested on Keith Olbermann’s show a couple weeks ago that BP was buying the organic listings when it was pretty clear (to me, and probably to any SEO who is remotely clued in) that he was seeing the results of personalized search.

Hi, Rebecca, thanks so much for joining the conversation. “Buying organic listings” — that’s a good one!


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