Here’s a scenario for you:

1. Let’s imagine for a moment that you are one of the largest companies and most well-recognized brands in the world.

2. Let’s also imagine that your company/brand is having a very difficult time with public opinion and PR lately because you have created an ecological and economic catastrophe of almost Biblical proportions.

What would you do?

Chances are that on the communications side, you would create a crisis response plan as robust as the damage itself. You would create a web page on your site to keep the public informed, provide updates on the actual response, post photos and videos of what you are doing to fix the problem, and respond to questions, criticism and anything else that comes your way. As a company with enormous resources, powerful connections and deep pockets, you would spare no expense: You would hire the best PR firms, the best web design firms, the best attorneys, and the best crisis communications monitoring and response professionals on the planet. Right?

Well, if you are BP, yes… and no.

On the traditional web front, I have to admit that BP has done a stellar job. The company’s Oil Spill Response page is very well designed, full of well-produced content, and stocked with helpful resources. Moreover, it is currently the default landing page for, which is smart. Anyone entering is automatically redirected to the Oil Spill response page. Here’s a screenshot:

So A+ on the traditional web front. Someone at BP deserves a pat on the back. No question.

But someone at BP also owes BP’s senior management an explanation. Because you see, in 2010, creating a pretty website to control the message isn’t enough anymore. Not by a longshot. PR, online/digital reputation management, crisis management require a little more savvy and understanding of media in 2010 than it did in 1995. As Nestle learned recently after Greenpeace brought the company to its knees using only YouTube and Facebook, PR professionals not well-versed in the world of Social Media and Social Networking sites are essentially as effective as a deaf and near-sighted sentry: You cannot defend a brand and its reputation if you cannot guard it, and you cannot guard it if you are not listening for signs of an impending problem.

While BP’s PR machine is busy creating content on their website and spreading it out via its official Twitter and Facebook accounts, it somehow completely missed two crucial steps:

1. BP didn’t think to scoop up relevant BP “identities” on Twitter. Like, for example @BPglobalPR (We’ll come back to that in a second.)  That a company of BP’s stature wouldn’t have someone on staff (in PR, Marketing, Legal, etc.) making sure that the brand’s identity is safe and sound on a Social Network as active and rapidly scaling as Twitter seems… strange, especially in 2010.

2. BP doesn’t seem to be monitoring key channels properly. Not in terms of what “key channels” mean when it comes to crisis management and digital reputation management in 2010. This apparent disconnect from the present state of media and communications management betrays a knowledge, insight and skill gap similar to that displayed by Nestle earlier this year that is frankly surprising, given what either company probably spends on retainers and other services dealing with PR and brand management.

Case in point: BP’s unchecked brand hijack (or rather “brandjacking”) on Twitter.

Here’s what’s going on: Since May 19th, someone on Twitter has been publishing updates under the @BPglobalPR handle” complete with a crisp BP logo and a profile identifying them as “BP Global PR”. Here is their very first update:

As a first contact, not a big deal. But then, things got a little more interesting:

You get the picture.

Funny stuff, unless you’re BP, and in particular, unless your job – at, with or for BP – is to make sure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. I can only assume that when BP writes big fat checks to its PR partners and assets, they expect them to be on top of these things, as well they should. Evidently, that may not be the case.

Let’s reframe this for a second: Will anyone mistake these updates for actual BP missives? Not likely. (Although a few people did, initially.) The updates are obviously a joke. But what does this say about the effectiveness of BP’s PR team in this time of crisis? What does it also suggest about BP’s interest in listening to the public? On the whole, what does it say about BP’s communications, brand management, and reputation management teams? I will let you answer those questions for yourselves.

My biggest questions today are these:

1. With millions spent on PR, crisis communications management, brand management, reputation management, how did an enterprising joker on twitter manage to fly under the radar for a week now, in plain view, using BP’s own name and logo? How? BP, are your PR and communications experts purposely blowing this off, or do they not understand how much their job has changed since 1995? (5/24 Update: According to an interview given to Adage a few hours after this post was published, it seems that both answers may be accurate.)

2. Compare the fake BP twitter account to the real BP twitter account. What is wrong with this picture? Which one looks real, and which one looks fake? How does this happen?

Update: Although indicates @Oil_Spill_2010 as its official twitter account, Shannon Paul (@ShannonPaul on Twitter) was kind enough to point me to another official BP account on Twitter: @BP_America. Here is what it looks like:

Good to see that BP does, in fact, have a branded Twitter account. Next step: Linking to it from the BP website.

(Tip: If your company has a Twitter account, it doesn’t hurt to add it to your website’s contact/media/resources section.)

5/25 Update (This space moves fast): Some changes were made to the @BPglobalPR account’s appearance since Monday 24 May. New logo:

3. How does the fake BP twitter account have more followers (in other words, more reach and influence) than the real BP twitter accounts? (5/25 Update: Only 10 hours after the posting this piece, @BPglobalPR now had already scaled to over 16,500 followers. 24 hours later – see image above – over 26,800 followers.)

Perhaps BP should consider hiring the guy behind the fake BP account. By all accounts, he seems to have accomplished more with a free twitter account, a healthy dose of wit and a few burritos than BP’s entire PR machine could manage in spite of its enormous budget, resources, and access to top PR, communications and digital talent from around the globe. The lesson here may be this: If corporate juggernauts like Nestle and BP can be made fools of this easily – in the era of the participatory web (which is no longer an emerging shift) – then perhaps it’s time for the corporate communications world to retool.

Five years ago, I interviewed with a large PR firm in the midwest. They were interested in speaking with me because I had a blog, I had worked in manufacturing, and they were trying to understand how to break into the blogosphere for some of their clients. The most senior executive in the meeting – a respected PR industry veteran – angrily explained to me that PR was about controlling the message, that it had always been so, and that it would always be so. And that her firm would never deviate from that course, no matter how many people became bloggers. (To which I replied “okay, so why am I here?” A story for another day.) Anyway, the point: This was 2005. Just five years ago, THAT is what the mindset was in the upper echelons of the Fortune 500’s PR firm universe. Less than two years ago, when I still worked within the Fortune 500 world, I routinely dealt with HR managers who were only vaguely aware of LinkedIn, PR managers who had never heard of ZDnet, Mashable, or even Twitter, and Digital managers who had never worked with WordPress. I know this is difficult for those of you who live, work, and truly exist in 2010 to grasp the full measure of what I am saying, but it is important for everyone to understand that a significant portion of the workforce today (even key management roles) is not up-to-date at all. Many of the people making crucial decisions in the business, manufacturing, marketing, communications and PR worlds today are five, ten, sometimes fifteen years behind the times. And when they are, this sort of thing happens.

In the end, once the fat checks have been cashed and the pretty reports and powerpoint decks have been presented, the result is still this: Those retainer fees and hefty salaries and seemingly impressive resumes didn’t stop the embattled brands/clients that paid dearly for them from the kind of embarrassment that my 15-year-old could have crushed with a laptop and about 15 minutes of light typing. There is absolutely no excuse for that lack of readiness and professional proficiency at the Fortune 500 level, and that is a problem that needs fixing. The time for paying lip service to the “Can you handle Social Media” question has come to an end.

So here are a few tips to avoid this in the future:

1. Monitor all currently relevant channels, not just the ones that were relevant to your field ten years ago. If you can afford tools like Radian6, Scoutlabs and Webtrends, get a demo today. If you can’t, free tools exist, not the least of which on Twitter is simply… running keyword searches, including your company name. This is not outrageously complicated.

2. Hire people who understand the Social Media space. More to the point: People who work in it every day. If you are a PR firm, hire someone who gets this stuff. If you are a PR firm’s client, ask that your PR firm hire someone who gets this stuff. A few hints: If they claim to be “certified” in Social Media, pass. If Social Media “Guru” or “Expert” is in their title, pass. Want to find someone who didn’t convert to the new Social Media religion three months ago? Look for references here and here.

3. Understand that experience in the Social Media space varies greatly depending on the function. A Community Manager, for example, may not have the skills and experience to help you integrate Social Media across the enterprise, or measure the effectiveness of your Social Communications programs and campaigns. It is worth noting that there are specialties within the Social Web management world, and that the “Social Media manager” designation is far from being one-size-fits-all.”

4. Don’t leave this to the last minute. Invest in these “new” channels now. Start listening, monitoring and understanding them, even if you aren’t ready to say anything yet. Learn to listen before you learn how to engage.

5. Make sure you don’t leave yourself (or your clients) open to brandjackings. #BrandManagement101.

Until the laggards catch up though, I will continue to enjoy watching @BPglobalPR ridicule BP’s PR machine, one irreverent tweet at a time.

Other posts on the topic:

Published before this post: John Taylor’s “BP gets brandjacked on Twitter

Published after this post: Adage’s “Why BP isn’t Fretting over its Twitter impostor” and Raymond Lutzewitz’ “Satire, a dangerous slope: BP Case Study” and of course, there’s also this (from The Guardian): “A Crash Course in PR, from the folks at @BPGlobalPR

And things get weirder still: Time reports that BP’s official account may have been hacked.