BP and the Oily Online PR Game

Tainted company buys key search engine placement in crass spin bid. But you don't have to look much farther for some truth…

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Jun 10, 2010  |  Updated 12:51 AM EDT
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BP is spilling online, too.

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If you type "oil well" or similar terms into Google or Yahoo, sponsored links to BP's damage control website will be the first thing to spurt up.

That's because the tainted oil giant is shelling out big bucks for the key placement in an apparent bid to keep on top of the news links and other sites variously detailing and decrying what's shaping up to be our nation's worst environmental disaster.

"Learn more about how BP is helping," the oil giant’s link beckons.

But another online resource – a satirical Twitter page that cost nothing to mount – may get us closer to the sad truth.

The Twitter account, @BPGlobalPR, is a parody of corporate spin, offering such gems as “Surprised ourselves by getting emotional on the coast today. Turns out the wind blew dispersant in our eyes” and “Proud to announce we've partnered with Google to turn the Information Superhighway into a Corporate Bus Route.”

There's nothing funny, of course, about the April oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and has since flooded the Gulf and beyond, wreaking untold havoc on our ecosystem. Watching it unfold, particularly on the Web, where we can witness the seemingly endless underwater gush of oil, is as maddening as it is frustrating.

The pointed humor of the Twitter feed resonates because we’re all too familiar the kind of corporate spiel where nothing is really said (or lies are served with a sugar coating) and little happens. BP has earned its status as a target for our fury, and can only add to the anger by spending money to draw eyes to a self-serving site.

"As long as BP keeps bullsh***ing. If they're going to spend $50 million on advertising, I'm going to go out of my way to break their b**ls," the anonymous tweeter, who goes by the pseudonym Leroy Stick, told Popeater this week.

It looks like the folks at BP are looking to do some chop-busting themselves – or they may just be totally clueless. The New York Times reports that the oil company asked that it be made clear the Twitter feed is a put-on. (The operator responded with this snarky disclaimer: "We are not associated with Beyond Petroleum, the company that has been destroying the Gulf of Mexico for 51 days.")

The @BPGlobalPR Twitter feed has garnered more than 140,000 followers since its May 19 debut, and scores of Facebook pages calling for a BP boycott have drawn hundreds of thousands of fans.

The rage over the spill also manifested itself in an understandable, but unproductive way this week in New York where vandals used brown paint to deface signs at BP gas stations owned by small business people whose only sin was their choice of fuel provider.

We’re choosing to cheer more positive action, like the “BP Cares” T-shirts promoted via the @BPGlobalPR Twitter feed. Proceeds from the $25 shirts – which display the BP logo, smeared with oily black smudges, dripping like blood – are going to the Gulf Restoration Network.

The efforts, if nothing else, help people vent and stave off feelings of helplessness as the PR game plays out online and elsewhere in the media. But sadly, it's going to take a lot more than T-shirts to sop up the oil spill that likely will haunt us for decades to come.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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