This week, the mainstream media has been blanketed by news coverage of BP’s oil spill off the US gulf coast.

With ecological, economic and political repercussions being hotly debated, Erik Sass at MediaPost capitalized on the zeitgeist by turning it into a social media case study — namely, how BP failed to manage to the overwhelmingly negative coverage of the disaster.


Let’s be honest: we’re a social media agency.  We love social media, and we make a living at it.

But we also have some perspective.

And when a massive oil spill may or may not threaten the ecology and economy of a huge swath of the United States, we understand a few implicit truths about the situation:

  • Containing the spill and minimizing potential damage is everyone’s top priority.
  • Issuing accurate & honest information is always more important than spin.
  • No amount of spin can absolve a company from an eco-disaster as it’s happening.

Sure, Sass admits that PR may seem trivial compared to the tangible challenges presented by the spill.  But he also believes that BP should have had a pro-active spin team in place long before the incident, so that negative news and perception about the spill didn’t spiral out of control.

On paper, that makes sense.

In reality, Sass greatly overestimates PR’s ability to save the day.

Let’s Not Overinflate PR’s Role, Shall We?

Public relations exists to manage the public’s perception of a brand’s reputation.

The key word here?


Public relations doesn’t create the public’s perception of your brand.

Public relations doesn’t save the public’s perception of your brand.

Your actions dictate the public’s long-term perception of your brand.

Yes, good PR can blunt the short-term effects of a bad decision.  And yes, good PR can ensure that your brand’s upside isn’t lost amid a swirling sea of negative publicity.

But does anybody truly believe that BP’s reputation would be any better today if they’d better managed their Facebook page last week?


Why Does Everybody Forget the “Relations” Part of Public Relations?

Olivier Blanchard recently blogged an excellent 2-part piece on Nestle’s public tussle with Greenpeace on Facebook.

His key point?  Nestle botched its response to Greenpeace’s “invasion” of the Nestle Facebook page.  If they’d had a proper social media plan in place, Blanchard reckons, they could have contained the negative sentiment spurred by Greenpeace and capitalized on an opportunity for proactive engagement with a passionate, if skeptical, public.

See, like BP, Exxon and most other multinational conglomerates, Nestle is “too big to fail” in PR terms.  No matter what they do wrong, they have the experience, reach and resources to rebound politically and economically in the long run.

A failure to engage the public proactively is the real missed opportunity in Blanchard’s example.  Sass echoes this sentiment when he admonishes BP for not making use of this catastrophe to directly engage the people who are most enraged (and, therefore, engaged) by the spill.

But here’s the kicker: engaging the public only works when a company wants to engage the public, and is prepared to assimilate the public’s feedback.  Otherwise, it’s just spin, and spin amounts to white noise.

Even the Best PR Can’t Save You from Yourself

Good PR can make your company seem like the greatest brand on the planet.

Good PR can also rescue your company from the depths of public hate.

But no amount of PR will trump the actions you take during a crisis, or the actions you take on a daily basis.

Actions ALWAYS trump spin.