The Times had a lengthy story on Sunday that looked at the challenges of crisis communications and the recent PR woes of BP, Toyota and Goldman Sachs.
All of the case studies are interesting. I was taken in particular with their thoughts about BP’s situation:
Yet, in the end, there may have been little that BP could have said to ameliorate public anger while the oil continued to spew, flooding the national consciousness — particularly given the modern realities of 24-hour cable news. More than any other company in crisis, BP had to contend with the power of a stark and ubiquitous image: oil gushing into water. As it tried and failed to plug the leak with various Rube Goldberg contraptions, any communications strategy was prone to backfiring.
“BP could apologize every day,” says Keith Michael Hearit, a communications professor at Western Michigan University. “They could have a situation where the C.E.O. goes on an environmental pilgrimage and falls on his knees going up a mountain, and it wouldn’t do them any good. Until the oil stopped, there was nothing that could be done to make it better, but there was plenty that could be said to make it worse.”
I was very surprised, however, that the article didn’t touch on social media and crisis communications. The images of the oil gushing was certainly the message delivered by television. But there were pieces of social media that I believe did just as much damage. The fake BP PR twitter account “BPGlobalPR” which issued faux PR updates about the spill has 190,000 followers or 1/10 the number of followers that the real BP twitter acount has. In addition to followers, the site got press attention as well. And then there were other responses. Tumblr, which was used by the New Yorker to distribute its oil spill cover, allowed its users a “heart of BP executive” black background. Facebook’s “Ban BP” page has almost 850,000 “likes” while BP’s own Facebook page has about 40,000.
It would have been interesting to hear the Times’ experts discuss how to handle the responses on Twitter and Facebook in addition to traditional media.
I’ve written crisis communications plans for a number of companies. These documents are vital in providing a guideline for what needs to get done in a crisis. Today, I would require that Social Media be a core component. If you have a crisis communications plan you might want to review it for social media engagement and monitoring provisions and ensure the people who manage your Facebook and Twitter accounts are part of the crisis response team.