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The Silent Killers in Social Media Never Die

By Richard Telofski

The current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is, of course, a first degree public relations nightmare for beleaguered British multinational BP. Many pundits and financial analysts have debated whether or not the company will be able to survive this environmental disaster. Whether BP can and does survive this ordeal financially remains to be seen. Certainly their financial survival will depend on how many claims are filed, the aggregate value of those claims, the legitimacy of the claims, and how long the claim filing goes on. All of which remains uncertain.

But what seems to me to be more certain is that BP will have an extremely difficult time surviving the corporate image nightmare. That is a problem that will not go away shortly after the last claim is paid and is one that likely will continue in perpetuity. Why do I think that? Two words: Social media.

These two words, and the peer-to-peer communications explosion they represent, did not exist in 1979 when the Ixtoc oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, nor did those two words and the social web technology that they describe exist when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989. Ixtoc and Valdez are two environmental accidents that are on a similar scale as the current BP spill. But the corporate image pitfalls of those pre-social media accidents will not live on to the same extent as will those of the BP spill.

Those corporate image perils will not be as threatening because social media did not exist during the times of Ixtoc and Valdez. And because there was no social media then, there would simply not be as much deposited about the Ixtoc or Valdez incidents within blogs, social networks, mini-blogs, photo sharing sites, etc. as there would be about the BP incident which is now playing out under the watchful eye of the pervasive social media world that grows daily. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and blogs galore are alight with news, opinions, and lies about the BP disaster. The extent of the social media coverage, much of it launched by “citizen journalists,” is so voluminous, too voluminous in fact, that it cannot be chronicled here. For your own customized look, you may simply enjoy the miracle of Google and type “BP” into their search box. But here I can, at least, take a quick look at one social media view of the BP accident. This one is particularly unique among all the social media haranguing of the hapless British multinational.

Prompted by the BP rig explosion and the ensuing spill, Greenpeace, the global environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), initiated a “Rebrand the BP Logo” contest. Via the Internet, Greenpeace asked its supporters to submit their own versions of the BP logo, telling them: “…create a logo for BP which shows that the company is not 'beyond petroleum' - they're up to their necks in tar sands and deepwater drilling.”

And what did the NGO say they would do with the winning redesign? (Which is known in other parlance as a “culture jam.”)  “The winning logo will be used by us in innovative and exciting ways as part of our international campaign against the oil company.” (Both quotes per Greenpeace Web site.)

Now, when viewed by the casual observer such an action might seem clever, cute, even perhaps tongue-in-cheek. Certainly because of these characteristics, the Greenpeace campaign would attract a lot of attention. But, when viewed from the perspective of a business person, it’s plain to see that this campaign will also add further contemporary damage to the BP corporate image. Be that as it may, let’s not be short-sighted and forget the BP of the future. That damage will be of an extended nature, one of a “silent killer” which will continue to injure the corporate image long after the last gallon of oil is scooped up, long after the last pelican is cleaned and released, and long after all compensation is awarded, no matter how much more “green” that energy company attempts to become. That injury to the future BP corporate image will endure because of the way Greenpeace collected the contest entries.

Greenpeace asked the contest entrants to submit their entries to a photo group on Flickr.com, the social photo and image sharing site. (Such sites in social media are sometimes known as “plogs,” short for “photo blog.”) When the contest ended on June 28, 2010, there were approximately 2,500 entries in the two Flickr.com photo groups, “Behind the Logo 1 & 2,” that Greenpeace had set up for their purpose. Also at that time, there had been about 600,000 views of the logo rebrands entered, views racked up in only a matter of a few weeks. In terms of numbers of future views, what do you think that number implies if these images remain on Flickr.com?

It doesn’t seem likely that Greenpeace would remove all these rebrand entries once the contest is complete. Why would they? And in that case, for as long as Greenpeace keeps its Flickr.com account active, these images will live “forever” on Flickr.com, and they will be available for people to digitally share and pass around as they like, ad infinitum, and ad nauseum for BP. Even if, at some point, Greenpeace did remove these logo rebrand entries from Flickr.com, in all probability, because these images would have been exchanged online, digitally migrating away from Flickr.com, moving from one site to the next, they will continue to live indefinitely on the larger social web.

So, given this one silent social media killer example, and because of all the other countless social media “pastings” of the BP brand that exist out there on the social web, I believe it will be very difficult for BP to survive the perpetual corporate image impact. This is an impact borne of an easy to use tool, accessible to almost everyone in the developed world, that didn’t exist a half dozen years ago and one which will likely become more pervasive as time marches on.

What does that signal for BP? And what does that indicate for any other company, such as yours, which is either rightly or wrongly accused within social media?

Richard Telofski is the founder and president of The Kahuna Content Company, Inc. a competitive strategy consultancy. He was also the founder and head of The Becker Research Company, Inc., one of the world's first competitive intelligence consultancies, where he worked with Fortune 100 clients. Telofski is the author of four books including Insidious Competition and Dangerous Competition.

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