June 1 (Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Web users dismayed by the BP oil leak are using Facebook and Twitter to channel outrage, organize cleanups, and poke fun at the public relations crisis facing the company behind the largest-ever U.S. spill.
A Facebook group called "Boycott BP," which encourages people to stop using BP (BP) products, has drawn more than 250,000 fans. U.S. government agencies have set up pages on Facebook, Twitter, Google's (GOOG) YouTube, and Yahoo!'s (YHOO) Flickr to field questions about the cleanup effort. An anonymously managed Twitter account that makes glib comments, purportedly on BP's behalf, has more than 97,000 followers.
Internet users on a growing scale are tapping social media sites to seek support for political causes, respond to global emergencies such as the January earthquake in Haiti, and voice consternation over what they see as unfair company practices. An undersea gusher resulting from the Apr. 20 explosion of a rig leased by BP is estimated to be the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
"On Facebook and Twitter you can see that people are angry, and justifiably so," says Navy Lieutenant Commander Jim Hoeft, who is posting updates from Robert, La., and interacting with users of social sites as part of the U.S. government's response to the leak.
Sheila Williams, a spokeswoman for London-based BP, says the company is monitoring sentiment on social media sites, although she says online outreach is a lower priority than containing the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "Our view is that people are entitled to their views," she says. "Our major area of concern is to try and control the leak."
Has BP missed PR opportunities?
Efforts to plug the leak, including one that involved an injection of mudlike drilling fluid and rubber scrap, have foundered. BP now plans to create a so-called relief well that would give it more control over oil and gas flow and help it try to stanch the leak.
Still, the company has missed opportunities to engage the online public in the wake of the catastrophe, says Heather Whaling, president of Geben Communication in Columbus, Ohio. "Even if they couldn't respond to every blogger who's writing about the spill, perhaps they could have organized a virtual blogger briefing," Whaling says.
A more proactive stance on social media sites might have curbed the negative sentiment among groups such as Boycott BP. The Facebook page "is the only place that I've been able to find 24-hour news" about the oil spill, says Katharine Leis, a Facebook user and founder of the Planet Bag, a maker of environmentally friendly products based in Orlando, Fla.
The site features video clips from Time Warner's (TWX) CNN and photos of oil-soaked beaches in Louisiana. It also hosts discussions around subjects that include chemical dispersants. Leis is helping to organize a protest against BP with nearby Facebook members in Florida.
The anonymously updated Twitter account "BPGlobalPR" shares mockingly satirical comments about the impact of the oil spill and the handling of the cleanup from the perspective of executives at the company. To wit: "We've created something that will affect your children's children. Can YOU say the same about YOUR life?" BP's Williams says the company is not responsible for the page and hasn't asked Twitter to take it down.
Government: Scanning all spill tweets
Twitter, based in San Francisco, says having all parties freely share their views is helpful. "We believe that an open exchange of information and ideas between individuals, organizations, corporations, and government leaders has a positive impact," says spokesman Sean Garrett.
Some groups, such as "Save the Gulf of Mexico," focus on cleanup as well as news and polls. Formed by regional newspapers such as the Mississippi Press, the page has more than 60,000 users. It posts toll-free numbers and other ways to contact nonprofits and governmental organizations working in the region.
In Robert, La., the Navy's Hoeft and a representative of the U.S. Geological Survey scan oil spill-related tweets that flash across the screen. The U.S. government previously used social media to respond to the earthquake in Haiti, Hoeft says.
"We learned some lessons from that and we have definitely applied them to this response," he says. Hoeft uses TweetDeck, a software application that tracks all Twitter messages bearing relevant hash tags—codes identifying them as relating to the event, such as "#oilspill."
About a month into the relief effort, Hoeft foresees more communications work ahead. His job is temporary, but he says he may be the government's social media liaison on the oil spill for months. "My unit can go upwards of 179 days to provide support," he said last week. "This is day 23."