Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
June 23, 201011:31 AM

Social Media Fairies And Pixie Dust

Hands up if you like big oil?

Anyone... anyone... Bueller... Bueller...? Was it the explosion of an oil rig that set you off ? Was it the lost lives of the hard-working individuals on that rig that is upsetting you? Maybe it's the who-knows-how-many thousands of liters of oil that continues to spew into our oceans every single day? Perhaps it's just the realization that this is (and will be) one of the worst environmental disasters our world has ever seen?

It's enough to make you sick.

BP is a business and the big business question that is on many people's minds (beyond market-caps, potential bankruptcy and overall impact on our world) is: how are they dealing with this tragedy from a marketing, communications and public relations perspective? The answer is: not very well, thank you very much for asking. Are they bad at it? Are they making the wrong moves? Was it a stupid idea to have BP CEO Tony Hayward give an emotionless apology in the form of a 30-second-spot (and then post it on YouTube as well)? Many media and business pundits feel that BP needs to spend more time using social media to connect and communicate in a more human way with the citizens of this world.

Seems kind of silly to think that being active on Twitter is going to change the general sentiment that the mass populace has of the BP brand.

"If BP is going to come out the back end of what's on its way to being the worse environmental disaster in history, (it's) going to have to be part of the dialogue in social media," said Augie Ray, an analyst with Forrester Research in the June 21, 2010, article, BP Gets Aggressive, for AdWeek. "The challenge is what happens in the real world is reflected in social media."

Facebook, Google ads and a Twitter account can help a brand. It may even be able to save a brand, but there is a fundamental flaw in these strategies and tactics when it comes to BP: big oil isn't something that anybody likes. In fact, it would be fair to say that big oil is something that everybody hates (with the mild exception of those employed by said big oil companies). Prior to the Gulf of Mexico disaster, no consumer ever pulled up to a gas pump as a happy consumer. No consumer ever paid to fill up their tank with gas and then thought to themselves, "I should really friend this brand on Facebook!"

Social media (and marketing, communications and advertising, in general) can't save you when people have a general disdain for your brand and everything that you represent.

The business model of oil (even down to the gas pump) still remains a black box mystery to the average consumer. No one truly understands why the prices are the way they are, and it's even more confusing that you can have multiple brands with different outlets, but they have the exact same prices on opposing street corners. Real-estate agents used to have this kind of "black box" control until websites like MLS came along. Suddenly, seeing all of the asking prices for homes in a specific neighborhood became democratized content and the mystery behind the business unveiled (a little). BP (and other big oil) are not going to shed their negative image by letting people know how they make their billions in profits.

Social media will not save them.

With the democratization of publishing content in text, images, audio and video online, instantly and for (next-to) free, some good stuff is oozing out of the Gulf of Mexico. If you're so inclined, you can go online and follow real stories from real human beings (without the PR pap) about what is truly happening. Individuals and organizations that care are tweeting their personal stories, they're publishing pictures and videos, and we're more connected as a society to this than we ever would have been in the decades that preceded the spill. People are collaborating; they're discussing possible solutions and debating what the government and society could (and should) do to hold BP and the others accountable.

Instead of BP using these channels and platforms to re-broadcast their very cold and calculated messaging, BP can learn by listening to the voices of those who are publishing with integrity, transparency, openness and candor.

Social media is great because it allows you to say things in a very human way. This disaster is so bad that there really is very little left to say. In fact, one could argue that there's nothing left to say, but to begin the hard work of cleaning up this mess, compensating those who have suffered and ensuring that this never happens again. All trust and credibility in BP has been lost and shattered, so if the tenants of social media are based on trust and credibility, how can BP be expected to engage and truly connect? For now, it's hopeless, but it probably was hopeless long before a drop of oil ever touched the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, it's your turn... what's your take?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here: