Villing & Company

Let's (Not) Give Them Something to Talk About: BP's Twitter Parody Problem

There is a common exchange between social media apologists and marketers reluctant to establish a social media presence. Often, the skeptic will say something like, “The last thing I want to do is provide a place where people can talk about us (negatively).” To which the social media proponent will say something like, “They’re already talking about you online. You might as well join the conversation.”

And that’s true for many brands. Still, I doubt anyone who’s ever used that line envisioned the kind of scenario that started playing recently with BP on Twitter.

On May 19, an account was created with the name @bpglobalpr, with the stated purpose, “to get BP’s message and mission statement out into the twitterverse!” If you find that bio a little less buttoned-down than would be expected from a global energy giant, you’re correct. It’s a fake account that has parodied and pilloried BP in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.

A BP official recently told AdAge that the company is aware of the account, but has yet to request that Twitter take it down, though it appears they would be well within their rights to do so.

BP has far more critical things to worry about, of course, but for the sake of looking at the marketing implications of the situation, consider that the @bpglobalpr has more than 54,000 followers, while BP’s official account, @BP_America, has just more than 6,700. Needless to say, when more people are interested in hearing jokes about you than hearing news from you, your brand has a problem.

According to the AdAge interview, BP apparently is not taking action to stop the account because they want a place for people to voice frustration with them. That may be the case, but it’s also true that acting to remove the Twitter account would only add to the public relations nightmare the company is already facing.

In crisis communications, the most important considerations are figuring out what you can control, and how you can control it. BP appears to be making a calculated decision that what is being distributed via @bpglobalpr – to an ever-growing number of followers – is favorable (or, “less unfavorable”) to what would be distributed via traditional media if the company moved to deactivate the account. In a strange way, allowing the account to proceed is actually “controlling” this small corner of the PR problem the company is in. Moving to quell the account would not only result in additional bad press, but could even generate numerous copycat accounts. And that new generation of accounts would likely make @bpglobalpr look downright complimentary in its remarks.

It goes without saying that the ecological implications of the situation are far more serious than the marketing implications. Still, this situation in which a company allows itself to be skewered online so that it can avoid further damage to the brand is unique and worth noting. It’s an unprecedented chapter in the volumes of examples of how social media can be used in a crisis.

BP knows it’s already being talked about. But in this case, it may be best to avoid the conversation.

Filed Under: public relations

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