BP can't control its oil leak, but it's also having a rough time with image control.
The company responsible for the spewing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is attracting more of the wrong kind of attention by purchasing several red-hot search terms - including "oil spill" - on Google, Bing and Yahoo's search engines in an attempt to ensure prominent placement of a link to a company web page touting the company's cleanup efforts.
On the advertised site, workers in bright yellow boots clean a relatively untainted beach in the sun in front of rolling blue waves as a not-oily sea bird struts past. Other photos depict a different reality.
"We have bought search terms on search engines like Google to make it easier for people to find out more about our efforts in the Gulf and make it easier for people to find key links to information on filing claims, reporting oil on the beach and signing up to volunteer," BP spokesman Toby Odone told ABC News, which broke the story of the keyword buys.
With everyone from President Obama to the humblest Gulf shrimper cursing the company, BP has a desperate need to put the best face on its ongoing efforts as well as to lay the groundwork for some serious long-term image management. So it's not surprising that the embattled oil company is buying search keywords, setting up a Facebook page and Tweeting while it also makes the traditional old media moves, which include shirt-sleeved TV appearances and hiring former RIAA chief Hilary Rosen.
But rather than help, being seen to make the effort to "make it easier for people to find out more about our efforts in the Gulf" may make matters worse by instead feeding a meme that BP is tone deaf - more concerned with its reputation than in actually cleaning up those parts of its mess that can still be cleaned up.
BP didn't begin its social networking campaigns in earnest until one month after news of the spill broke, recalls David Binkowski of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. And when it did, the company seems to have been hamstrung by its legal council's insistence on not apologizing for or admitting to having done anything wrong. Those admissions can haunt a company in court, but BP's inability to apologize has hurt its ability to have an honest conversation, however difficult, with the public - assuming that's what it wants to have.
Then, when BP launched its massive TV campaign starring CEO Tony Hayward, it was lambasted for spending $50 million on that rather than, for example, Gulf families put out of work by the spill - even though, pardon the expression, that amount is a drop in the ocean of its assets.
Hayward - whose British accent doesn't seem to pacifying Americans as such an accent often does here - didn't help his cause by remarking in a TV interview, "I want my life back." He meant it as evidence of how hard he was working on the problem, but critics reminded us that the 11 people died on the Deepwater Horizon rig would never be getting their lives back. Hayward then had to apologize.
BP COO Doug Suttles told The Associated Press the leak would decrease to a trickle by Monday or Tuesday. The company then had to pull back on his promise.
Meanwhile, the BP's official Twitter feed is overwhelmed by a more popular parody version that BP is now being made fun of for trying to get shut down, its low-ranking Facebook page fights several prominent "boycott BP" groups for attention there, and #oilspill remains a trending topic on Twitter. This war of opinion has real economic consequences for BP and its member gas stations, the latter subject to public demonstrations and an inability to charge a premium for their product, according to what Oil Price Information Service chief oil analyst Tom Kloza told the Washington Post.
BP's late use of social networking was a problem, but its reliance on advertising to communicate this sort of message may have constituted the wrong approach.
"[Advertising] is the right move from an awareness perspective, but from a conversation perspective, it's not the best move," said Binkowski. "I would want there to be a dialogue of some kind to give people more insight into what's happening and what they're doing. Clearly, they waited too long, and now they're playing catch-up and trying to get their message out there."
Social media is a powerful tool, but like the old saying goes, a tool is only as good as the person who wields it. As we await a miracle in the Gulf, BP would be wise not to expect - or hope for - any others.