Social media and the gulf oil spill
I’m writing this for people who may be interested in the use of social media to “cover” a disaster such as the Gulf oil spill. For those of you who tend to “bounce” from one website to another, here are links to the BP Oil News blog, BP Oil News Twitter feed, BP Oil News Facebook fan page, and BP Oil News Group discussed in this article.Â Also, a warning: the next paragraph of this post contains a little personal history which some may find boring. For pure social media talk, skip to the third paragraph.
I’ve been using the Internet to communicate about mass torts for more than ten years now, but this is the first time I’ve included Twitter and Facebook in the mix. Back in 1999, I began using Microsoft Frontpage to create websites discussing Fen-Phen, Rezulin, Baycol and other mass tort litigation. My original plan was to create a dedicated site for news covering the Fen-Phen litigation, with the idea that I could act as a journalist and sell ads to lawyers. When it turned out (in 1999) that I could find no lawyers who would buy ads (no one believed they could obtain clients over the Internet), a friend and I decided to give it a try. We brought in a third lawyer to organize a national network of law firms in over forty states, and began signing up mass tort clients by the thousands. Most of the discovery and all of the trial work was handled by one or more large litigation firms, and our network handled the client communications and helped evaluate settlement offers. I felt that we advanced the cause of “justice for all” because we gave people in rural, under-lawyered areas the opportunity to be represented by some of the best plaintiffs’ lawyers in the U.S. We also clearly explained on the web why a particular drug or product was defective, how it caused injuries, and why the manufacturers were liable.Â I even put up a few websites simply to warn and/or inform people about particularly dangerous products, without seeking or accepting clients. I felt that the Internet allowed me to help many more people than I would have been able to help without the Internet.
When British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, I watched television like everyone else to see what was happening to the Gulf Coast. The first news was terrible; the loss of eleven men who worked on the oil rig. The developing story was also terrible. I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and have vacationed on the Gulf Coast dozens of times. I have a relative/client with a condo on the Coast. And after a few days of watching, I felt sure that this was going to be a devastating blow to the ecology and economy of the Gulf, and possibly to the health of many people in the region.
At that point I kicked off a WordPress blog, using a Thesis theme, at http://BPOilNews.com. I hired a free-lance journalist to write a couple of articles while I got things going, and then I added a Twitter feed with the name @BPOilNews. I already had one Twitter account, @evansmichaelj, and that account had several hundred followers. I used the @evansmichaelj account to tweet about technology, Apple products, consumer protection, online legal marketing, and things that make me laugh. Within a couple of weeks, the number of followers on the @BPOilNews account had surpassed the followers of @evansmichaelj. More importantly, the “retweet” rank of the @bpoilnews account soared to the point that @BPOilNews tweets were “retweeted” more than those of CNN’s Anderson Cooper. In the Twitterverse, my @BPOilNews account retweet rank was 902 out of all of the millions of Tweeps. That placed @BPOilNews in the 99.94th percentile. @evansmichaelj was ranked 17,387, which was in the 98.99th percentile.
After getting the blog and Twitter account going, I joined Facebook. Even though I’ve been one of the first lawyers to use the Internet and online video for legal marketing, I must admit I had never joined Facebook. Part of it was simply that I just didn’t see myself getting into “friending” people and chatting online like my kids do all the time. But I knew that Facebook is a necessary part of any social media campaign, so I took the plunge. First I joined Facebook, and then I began a fan page for my blog (at www.Facebook.com/BPOilNews). I found that I could post an article to my blog, then post a brief summary (with a link to the article) on Facebook, and tweet about it with links to the article and/or Facebook page. These tactics, plus a few Facebook ads, resulted in my Facebook fan page gaining over 1,600 followers in a rather short time.
A surprise: oil spill suggestions
One thing that took me by surprise about my blog was that, shortly after I started it, readers began submitting suggested solutions to plug the oil leak. Without even asking for suggestions, readers began what became a “crowdsourcing” effort at BPOilNews.com. I have long been an advocate of crowdsourcing, the practice of bringing in crowds of people to solve a problem. I first became acquainted with the concept over a year ago when I read the book Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business by Jeff Howe. If you haven’t read the book, you should consider reading it. It gives examples of large companies such as Proctor and Gamble who post problems on the Internet when their engineers are stumped. It gives examples of problems that have been solved by seemingly unlikely people around the world. I have used crowdsourcing on several occasions, always with great results. Almost a year ago I blogged about crowdsourcing here, and then I posted another crowdsourcing article here.
After I received five unsolicited oil spill suggestions, I posted an article entitled Crowdsourcing the Oil Spill | Your Suggested Solutions. And the floodgates opened up. I’ll be the first to admit that my website was not the only one that accepted suggestions to plug the oil leak. But I was surprised that my independent blog received almost 1,500 serious oil spill suggestions. When I call the suggestions “serious,” I don’t mean they were all “viable.” As a lawyer, I don’t know if any of them are viable. But there were almost 1,500 suggestions submitted by people who seriously believed their idea might help. And several of them were submitted by people who claimed (and appeared to me) to be Ph.D.s, engineers, and people with twenty years experience in the oil industry.
After reading over 1,000 oil spill suggestions and watching untold hours of cable news coverage of the oil spill, an idea occurred to me. It was not an idea about plugging the leak–I can’t even put together a child’s toy at Christmas. No, the idea that occurred to me was about how the cleanup is being handled. I watched Anderson Cooper and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal spend an entire day in a boat viewing the marshlands and beaches of Louisiana, and they did not see a single worker. The next day, when President Obama visited Grande Isle, LA, there were 300 workers cleaning up the beach. As soon as President Obama left, the workers were sent home. Reporters at Grande Isle asked the obvious question: “Were the workers here just for the photo op with President Obama?” BP naturally denied this, and said that it simply sent the workers home because it was “the heat of the day.” As a born-and-bred Southerner who worked his way through college with jobs at a farm and a service station, I know that you don’t get sent home because it’s “the heat of the day.” Who does BP think it is kidding? BP runs oil rigs in the heat of the Gulf of Mexico and the bitter cold of the North Sea. When has it ever taken a break from drilling to get its employees inside so they won’t be working in the heat of the day?
After all the other lies BP had told, the “heat of the day” lie inspired an idea. We simply can’t trust BP to handle the on-the-gound cleanup. We may have no choice when it comes to plugging the leak, because BP apparently has better equipment to plug the leak than our government. But BP doesn’t have superior skills for handling the on-the-ground efforts. Our country is better equipped for what is, essentially, a massive public works project. Furthermore, BP’s interests are very different from the interests of the U.S. BP’s sole interest is paying the least amount of money possible. Our government is interested in protecting the ecosystem, as well as the health and financial well-being of citizens and businesses on the Coast. On May 28, 2010, I posted my proposal for helping clean up the Gulf oil spill.
My proposal called on President Obama to federalize the oil spill response, and pay for it with BP’s fines and damages. I posted a survey on my blog, and people who responded overwhelmingly preferred to take the response away from BP (and yes, I know it’s not a scientific survey). After I posted my proposal, I began looking for those who might support the same or a similar idea. I found that former Labor Secretary Robert Reich was proposing that the federal government put BP into temporary receivership until the cleanup is finished, and that retired General Russel Honore was calling on President Obama to take control under the Stafford Act. After sleeping on my idea and feeling more convicted of its merit than before, I started a Facebook group entitled “Dear Pres. Obama: Please take over the Gulf oil clean up and send BP the bill.” That group currently has 620 members. If you’re interested in the proposal, which is intended primarily to lessen the economic hardship on people and businesses on the Gulf, you can click on this link and read the entire oil spill suggestion article.
I want to make it clear that I really believe in my idea for the federal government to take over the oil spill cleanup. I think that a part of using social media to cover an issues requires that you be “genuine.” My antipathy for BP, and my concern for people affected by the Gulf oil spill, is genuine. And I really believe that the government should take over the oil spill response, rent all the vacant hotel rooms and fill them with volunteers and unemployed workers. By injecting money into the local economy through payments to workers and hotels, the government could take a big step toward forestalling an economic catastrophe.
Interestingly, the social media/crowdsourcing aspect of my blog has generated some media coverage. A New York Times blog discussed the fact that readers were posting suggested oil spill solutions at BPOilNews.com. The BBC also discussed the suggestions being made at BPOilNews.com, explained the concept of crowdsourcing (referencing Howe’s book) and quoted one of my readers. And a coalition of environmental groups quoted from my proposal, and suggested that I be placed in charge of the efforts.
I’m sharing this for those of you who are interested in using social media in your online communications. Before I hit the “Publish” button, I’ll make this pitch: Please go join my Facebook group “Dear Pres. Obama: Please take over the Gulf oil clean up & send BP the bill.” And visit my blog for Gulf oil spill news.