Recently, I read a report that BP, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, was spending $10,000 per day for advertisements on several search engines for terms such as “oil spill” and “gulf spill.” This was an attempt to ensure that their website, outlining their response, would be at the top of the results page for people seeking more information on the developing story. While it is not an uncommon practice for companies to purchase ads on search engines for terms that describe their services or offerings, I found it interesting to see this tactic used in crisis communications in an effort to have greater influence over a conversation.
The strategy is an interesting one, innovative yet questionable in its ethics from my standpoint. On the one hand, it is a primary focus of PR to ensure that a company stays deeply involved in the discussion surrounding it and its industry. This has been a problem for BP since the explosion and subsequent oil spill began in April. Their PR efforts have struggled to find a voice, perpetually drowned out by the constant (but in my view, deserved) scrutiny from the media. By purchasing advertisements on search engines for related terms, BP is trying to force its perspective into the forefront in an effort to salvage its brand. In that sense, it is simply good crisis PR strategy.
However, the move can also be seen as BP trying to deceive the public and control the news that people are receiving. This feeling of mistrust is well-founded, as through this disaster BP has not always appeared entirely forthright to the public. The worry of BP deceiving people is also real, as some studies report that many people have a hard time distinguishing paid advertisements from unpaid search results. So, since some individuals may mistake BP’s voice for that of third parties; therein lies the questionable ethics.
Regardless of what one thinks concerning the ethics of the matter, this aspect of BP’s PR strategy offers two big lessons that all companies can learn from, even though they may likely never face a crisis situation such as the one at hand. First, it is vital that companies stay involved in industry conversations. In this case the method is debatable, but for most companies this can be achieved through proactive media campaigns, thought leadership, analyst relations, etc. Second, this situation shows the importance of SEO. With so many people getting their news and information from search engines, being a top return for relevant search queries is essential and proper SEO can help in achieving this goal.
By Bess Hammitt