Why Social Media Will Never Let BP Sleep

by Richard Telofski

The current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is, of course, a first degree public relations nightmare for beleaguered British multinational BP. Many pundits and financial analysts have debated whether or not the company will be able to survive this environmental disaster. Certainly their financial survival will depend on how many claims are filed, the aggregate value of those claims, the legitimacy of the claims, and how long the claim filing goes on. All of which remains uncertain.

But what seems to me to be more certain is that BP will have an extremely difficult time surviving the corporate image nightmare. That is a problem that will not go away shortly after the last claim is paid and is one that likely will continue in perpetuity. Why? Two words: Social media.

The peer-to-peer communications explosion “social media” represents, did not exist in 1979 when the Ixtoc oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, nor did they exist when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989. Ixtoc and Valdez are two environmental accidents that are on a similar scale to the current BP spill.

And because there was no social media then, these spills have had a much smaller turn in the social media spotlight. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and blogs galore are alight with news, opinions, and lies about the BP disaster. The extent of the social media coverage, much of it launched by “citizen journalists,” is so voluminous, too voluminous to cover succinctly here. But here I can, at least, take a quick look at one social media view of the BP accident.

Prompted by the BP rig explosion and the ensuing spill, Greenpeace, the global environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), initiated a “Rebrand the BP Logo” contest. Greenpeace asked its supporters to “ . . . create a logo for BP which shows that the company is not ‘beyond petroleum’ – they’re up to their necks in tar sands and deepwater drilling.”

And what did the NGO say they would do with the winning redesign aka culture jam?

“The winning logo will be used by us in innovative and exciting ways as part of our international campaign against the oil company.”

Now, when viewed by the casual observer such an action might seem clever, cute, even perhaps tongue-in-cheek. Certainly because of these characteristics, the Greenpeace campaign will attract a lot of attention. But, from the business perpective it’s plain to see that this campaign will also add massive damage to the BP corporate image in the short term. More importantly still, the damage will impact the company over the long term, long after the last gallon of oil is scooped up, long after the last pelican is cleaned and released, and long after all compensation is awarded, no matter how much more “green” that energy company attempts to become. That injury to the future BP corporate image will endure because of the way Greenpeace collected the contest entries.

Greenpeace asked the contest entrants to submit their entries to a photo group on Flickr, the social photo and image sharing site. When the contest ended on June 28, 2010, there were approximately 2,500 entries in the two Flickr.com photo groups, “Behind the Logo 1 & 2,” that Greenpeace had set up for their purpose. Also at that time, there had been about 600,000 views of the logo rebrands entered, views racked up in only a matter of a few weeks. These Flickr groups will live on long after the contest ends, drawing page views and damaging BPs image for years to come.

Even if Greenpeace did remove these logo rebrand entries from Flickr they will continue to live indefinitely on the larger social web, since the images have already been widely adopted and copied on other websites.

Since these images will live on, it will be very difficult for BP to survive the perpetual corporate image impact. This is an impact borne of an easy to use tool, accessible to almost everyone in the developed world, that didn’t exist a half dozen years ago and one which will likely become more pervasive as time marches on.

What does that signal for BP? And what does that indicate for any other company, such as yours, which is either rightly or wrongly accused within social media?

About the author:
Richard Telofski is the founder and president of The Kahuna Content Company, Inc. a competitive strategy consultancy. He was also the founder and head of The Becker Research Company, Inc., one of the world’s first competitive intelligence consultancies, where he worked with Fortune 100 clients. Telofski is the author of four books including Insidious Competition and Dangerous Competition. For more information please visit: www.InsidiousCompetition.com

Image from Greenpeace UK

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7 responses

  1. Until BP gets bought… then all will be slipped under the rug, liability of past mistakes limited, and competitive advantage for the acquirer extended.

  2. Let's get this straight.
    Corporations are not people.
    They cannot sleep.
    If you mean social media will perhaps aide in keeping this collosal mass rape on the front page so that accountability isn't just something the Board and shareholders of BP pays lip service to, then yes, social media may help.

    Let's make sure it does. It wasn't around for the people of Prince William Sound – who never recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill.

    Challenge corporate PR BS and criminality, any which way you can.

  3. Pingback: As the Digital Revolution Would Have It | Social Media and Sustainability

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