For over two months this summer, between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil a day leaked from a broken well in the Gulf of Mexico. This catastrophic oil spill has caused untold damage to wildlife, fishermen, tourism, and all living in the area. There are so many cultural lessons to be learned from this particular situation besides the horrific impact this event has had on God’s creation. One idea has stuck out to me most recently.

BP, the company responsible for the oil spill, worked toward repairing the gushing well even as it tried, and is still trying, to repair its struggling public image. Public favor is not on BP’s side. Early comments made by CEO Tony Hayward did nothing to assuage the flood of ill will toward the company. Hayward’s public comments have been seen disconnected and uncompassionate. He spent time on his 52-foot yacht while the fishing community in the Gulf region has lost their ability to make a living. He was quoted as saying he wanted to cap the well because he “wanted (his) life back,” a comment that did not sit well with many in view of the 11 deaths that occurred when the drilling rig exploded on April 20th. BP hopes that a new CEO, Bob Dudley, will do more to help repair BP hurting image.

Much of BP’s PR hope is based in online media outlets and social networking. They have launched public relations campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr in an attempt to avoid the filter of traditional media. Many think BP has done a good job of identifying the best online outlets for their campaign, places many other companies have found helpful in times of crisis. However, these media outlets can come with their own set of issues. For example, Geoff Livingston, who runs a social media marketing company, says “When you have a two-way channel like Facebook or Twitter, you’re expected to have a conversation. Eventually when you don’t have a conversation with people and you just put out messages and ignore them, people feel like you’re not really there.”

Two points stuck out to me like a sore thumb in BP’s Public Relations campaign. The first was how one or two very small comments made by their CEO changed the whole tide of public feeling on the company. Nearly every article I read discussed how the one or two off-the-cuff comments CEO Hayward made did repeated damage to BP’s image. Recently, my congregation has gone through several crises and I have seen first hand how what our staff and lay leadership say changes how people feel in these unfortunate situations. God is powerfully at work, and we are only humans doing our very best. Yet even in our selfishness we don’t realize one thoughtless comment may have a huge impact on how someone feels about a difficult situation. What one person says can either help or hinder the healing process. As leaders, we need to always be aware of how what we say influences people’s perceptions of the church, especially during times of turmoil.

Secondly, I found it fascinating how BP is working to clean up their image via the internet. It immediately made me think of the vastly different ways our ministries use these outlets. Some do not use them at all, while others use them prolifically. Yet, the comment made by Livingston struck home for me. In my quest to connect to my youth using social networking and media sites, I have been less successful than I would like. I wonder if one of the reasons is that I am using the platforms to talk TO youth rather than to use the platforms for conversation as they were designed. I am interested to see if we would find far more success at making meaningful connections when we are responsive to the interaction happening on these sites, rather than just using them as another means of tossing information at our youth. It would make sense that we would get the best response when we use these sites as they were intended.

BP has a long way to go in finding the best way to regain public favor. Currently, an anonymous Twitter account made to look like BP Public Relations, but that really is designed to mock the company, has ten times the number of followers as the real BP PR. Let us learn what we can from what we are seeing so that our communication to our ministries can be God-pleasing and effective.