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With Social Media, BP Is Losing the Image Game

BP did not adequately use its "peace time" to build an Internet reservoir of support via the social media. Now it is being overwhelmed on the Internet by its adversaries.

History is full of examples of great ideas that don't work, as well as great ideas that do work but only in a losing cause. Leadership is still leadership even if it cannot necessarily guarantee a final triumph.

As a case in point, consider the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, established by the Unified Command's Joint Information Center (JIC) to manage oil spill operations. The Command links major responders, provides a decision-making forum, and publicly updates information. To maximize a leadership position as a public resource, the centerpiece must, of course, be its digital outreach.

The Deepwater Horizon story is transformed with every 15-minute news cycle. But whatever eventually happens, the JIC's

official site, is an important template for future digital outreach amid well-nigh apocalyptic crises. It merits our close attention as much because it is such a model for all companies and countries caught up in disaster as for any ultimate impact it may have on the resolution of the Gulf crisis.

For starters, the very name of the entity, "Unified Command," communicates the right message of assurance. It bespeaks a veritably military operation, not just a swelter of political and corporate interests. Those players include

BP

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and

Transocean

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as well as thirteen public entities, from the Coast Guard and the National Park Service to the Departments of State, Commerce, and Interior.

The site itself is praiseworthy for many reasons. In its original incarnation, it seemed hastily designed with less than optimal navigation. But it's been improved enough over the past weeks to suggest, first, that JIC understood the critical need to get something up as fast as possible and, second, that the site has indeed gotten their tireless attention on a day-to-day basis since it was posted.

Among the vital successes of the site, it grasps the critical need to persuade through pictures. A range of visuals includes

slideshows of clean-up efforts , diagrams of the spill containment attempts,

live press conferences , and links to more images on government sites.

In order to balance the disheartening images disseminated virally by industry adversaries, one might prefer more compelling visuals that really dramatize the heroic personal efforts and human faces of the clean-up workers. Shrewdly, though, the site intersperses photos of affected wildlife and polluted water with photographs of ongoing remediation efforts. The message is thus one of candor and transparency.

The site's various features are by no means revolutionary in and of themselves, but the fact that so much is incorporated in a one-stop clearinghouse shows a rare understanding of digital crisis management. Among the resources for citizens:

locality-specific contingency plans , an

ongoing response timeline ,

updated maps, a comprehensive

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FAQ page, and easy-to-find contact information to notify authorities of wildlife problems, oil flows, and even damage claims. If nothing else, the benefit of such online resources is to communicate that someone is in control even as the daily headlines suggest that no one at BP or the government is the least bit in control.

Most significant, however, the digital strategy fully integrates the social media with prominent links to related profiles on the major networks. The home page alone incorporates a

Flickr slideshow , embedded YouTube video, and a snapshot of current Facebook activity. It's therefore no accident that the

Facebook page has 27,000 fans and the

YouTube videos have been viewed a total of 2.1 million times.

The benefit for Unified Command is that it is therefore sending its message directly to its audience rather than only relying on reporters as intermediaries. Such direct contact is the only way that the site sponsors can hope to even begin to control this story in the Court of Public Opinion.

The extent to which the story can ultimately be controlled won't, of course, be determined by a digital strategy. It is, though, wholly to the point that there can be no hope for such control absent this sort of model digital engagement.

That said, how much of its own brand equity does BP protect by participating in a joint site with a current adversary like Transocean as well as an embattled government agency like the Minerals Management Service? It is imperative that BP be perceived as spearheading the solutions to the problems it caused. Can that purpose be achieved when BP is subsumed under this collective digital leadership effort in lieu of launching its own equally effective outreach?

If the United Command digital strategy is a substitute for such outreach by BP, the oil giant truly disserves itself. There is indeed much evidence that BP has not on its own been minding the digital store. For example, the Twitter account now masquerading as BP's has ten times more readers than the real corporate account.

Yet the larger point for BP is that it -- not Transocean or the government -- will continue to be the most vehemently targeted party as it is the party responsible. Even outstanding leadership initiatives like the United Command will not ultimately shield its beleaguered brand. The proverbial proof of that pudding is the "Boycott BP" Facebook page featured on CNN in late May. It is growing by 20,000-25,000 names per day (and would have grown faster but for the Memorial Day weekend). As of this writing, the numbers on just this one boycott exceed 200,000.

The final lesson is all about expanding brand equity online before disaster strikes. It does indeed seem that BP did not adequately use its "peace time" to build an Internet reservoir of support via the social media, support which it could have drawn from starting Day One. Now it is being overwhelmed on the Internet by its adversaries, the expert leadership of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command notwithstanding.

For BP to address the challenges that face the company short- and long-term, this model web and social media initiative is a terrific "nice to have." But the digital "need to have" is something that BP has by no means achieved -- and now must achieve, on its own, no matter what desperate successes or excruciating failures attend its daily struggles in the Gulf during the weeks and months ahead.

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