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Open Letter to BP: Three Tips on How to Use Social Media and the Web to Diffuse Your PR Crisis

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The only thing bigger than the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the size of BP's public relations disaster. Just as BP can't control the oil spill as it seeps further and further, nor can they control what the public is saying. Just to be clear, control is the operative word.

BP's communications folks appear to be unwilling -- or possibly disinterested -- in getting their arms around the statusphere, the social media produced hourly by hundreds of thousands of consumers intent on talking about the company, the oil spill, the cleanup efforts, the psychological and physical devastation of the Gulf coast, the monstrous effects on wildlife and more.

To wit, Google the phrase "BP Facebook" and the top result is the Boycott BP page with over 753,000 fans, as of this writing. The second result is BP America's official Facebook page with 33,000 fans. Over on Twitter, BP has beefed up its official Twitter page and is now posting regular updates. The page has over 16,000 followers. But the fake and much funnier BPGlobalPR Twitter account has over 181,000 fans. Damning video footage from CBS' 60 Minutes program about the explosion of drilling rig Deepwater Horizon is being re-posted on dozens of blogs. You get the idea.

Hmmm. So what is a Global 100 company to do in the midst of a corporate crisis? It may seem that paying attention to blogs and Twitter and Facebook is a diversion right now. In fact, it's not. This is where millions of us are hanging out and where many of us are forming our opinions about BP and its tarnished brand. With a few tweaks, BP could leverage its social media efforts much more gracefully and effectively to mitigate the PR disaster of the April 20 oil spill.

Here's some advice aimed at BP's communications team as well as to BP Gulf Coast Restoration Organization CEO Bob Dudley.

1. Cut the corporate speak

Bob, browse to BP's home page and take a good hard look. What do you see? With the headline "Gulf of Mexico Response" you are in defense mode. Note the exact word: response. Instead of saying sympathetically "We know you may be concerned and have questions" you are stating "Here's how WE are responding." You are in full corporate mode and it's off putting.

Links to press releases line your home page along with (predictably corporate) video interviews. Dig a bit deeper and your About BP page proclaims, "Our brand -- Summed up by two words 'beyond petroleum.'" I guess you could say that. As in, BP's brand is in a place that is way beyond petroleum right now. Deep sushi, to be precise.

The Investors page makes us squirm. One of the links reads: "BP outlines plan to improve financial performance while increasing production through 2020." Ouch.

Easy fix: with a few copywriting tweaks your team could rewrite some of the key pages on the corporate site to make it sound, well, human. Humble and honest wouldn't hurt either. Those of us following the news know that you have pledged $20 billion to clean up the Gulf Coast. Are you absolutely sure your financial performance will be improving in the next few years?

2. Copy what your detractors are doing

Rather than dismiss the fake Twitter page, take a close look at how it's written. Now adopt some of that tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecatory humor on your own social media outposts. Humor and informality are the lingua franca of Twitter and Facebook. Learn how to speak the language if you want to play in the space. You'll be ever so much more interesting and authentic. And you'll garner lots more followers and fans.

3. Launch a Save-the-XXXX microsite

This is a time-honored corporate tradition. Make it look like you care... about sea turtles, porpoises, brown pelicans. Take your pick. These animals are among the wildlife most threatened by the toxic oil spill. Launch a Save-the-Sea-Turtles microsite, clearly sponsored by BP. Make the site informative, fun and interactive.

This may not seem important right now but it could be extremely effective over the coming months and years, as you work to position yourself as a socially responsible corporation. For godsakes, you're thinking about how to do that, right? For ideas, take a look at the Haagen Dasz Save the Honey Bees site that addresses the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder. On a lighter note, check out Oprah's No Phone Zone sponsored by Sprint, Liberty Mutual and General Motors.

Finally, stop trying to manage this disaster as a PR crisis. "You don't manage a disaster," technology and social media analyst and author Charlene Li told me. "You deal with it." You're on the right track with your open interview with Bob Dudley on YouTube. Do more stuff like that, risky as it may feel at first, and you may find that your tarnished brand has a tiny chance.