Why the Oil Spill Response Team is Using Facebook, Social Media to Spread News

Ten days after the BP oil rig exploded and caused a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the joint government/corporate response team sent out an online plea via Twitter and Facebook: “To submit ideas for stopping the oil spill, call (281) 366-5511 or email horizonsupport@oegllc.com.”

It was an unusual request via an unusual medium. But it’s part of a larger strategy to use social media to interact with the public. For about a week, the response team has been maintaining a website, a Facebook page, and a presence on Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Several times a day, the sites issue press releases, photos, videos and news updates. They’ve also occasionally put out calls for volunteers (and clean-up ideas). And the Facebook page allows the public to comment on the ongoing effort to contain the spill.

“Being able to have an open dialogue is social media at its best,” said Stacey Knott, who’s maintaining the sites for Deepwater Horizon Response -– a unified operation that includes BP, rig owner Transocean, and more than a half-dozen government agencies, including the Coast Guard, Minerals Management Service, and Department of Defense.

Knott works at the response team’s Joint Information Center, creating content for the sites and responding to user comments. “The public is suspicious of government and of big companies,” she said by phone. “I want people to know there’s a real person here who’s trying to give them information.”

While it’s common for agencies to establish websites to push out official information during crises, interactive social media is a new tool. Knott says several relief groups used Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the public after the Haitian earthquake, but says the Gulf oil spill may be the first attempt to develop a coordinated “one stop” interactive effort during an ongoing disaster.

In less than a week, the response team’s Facebook page accumulated more than 9,000 followers and almost a thousand comments. Many users have posted simple statements of support for the response efforts (“Just want to say thanks to those frontline guys, in danger’s path, working on solution”). Others pose basic questions. (We are trying to plan a vacation down to Destin ….. Are the beaches going to be ok?”)

But several are more confrontational. “Greed plus apathy equals engineering disaster,” opined one Facebook user. “If you can drill the hole, you should know how to cap it.” And when the response team posted photos of President Obama’s Louisiana visit May 2, the first Facebook comment was blunt. “Took his azzz long enough to show up,” it read.

“There are some folks who are just mad, and they want to vent, and that’s okay,” Knott said. “We understand people are worried.” She said she’s deleted only one Facebook comment because of profanity.

As colorful as some of the comments are, experts say the online discussion may work to the advantage of BP and the response agencies. Internet marketing consultant Frank Reed says the social media efforts give the appearance that corporate and government leaders are listening to the public. “It will pay off by showing the human side of the corporation,” he said by phone.

At the same time, Reed says the Facebook page “corrals” some of the online outrage into a place where officials can monitor the discussion and allow users to express themselves. “It’s like letting a baby cry,” Reed said. “Sometimes it’s better to get it out of their system.”

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Knott wades into many of the Facebook discussions herself, though typically only to answer factual questions or reassure people who post distraught comments. “We are worried too and are working hard to stop the leaks,” she wrote back to one.

And as for the request for ideas to stop the oil leak, Facebook users contributed more than a dozen suggestions, including using peppermint oil, filling nets with hair clippings, and convening the brightest “tech minds” in the country to build a robot.

“They’ve run the gamut from good ideas to some that were a little different and interesting,” Knott said.

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