BP and Petroleum Industry Group Play the Oil Spill Keyword Game

Last Updated Jun 9, 2010 10:43 AM EDT

BP caused a major disaster in the Gulf of Mexico with the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform and a subsequent oil spill the size of separate states. Then it compounded the problem by PR so inept that you'd swear it was orchestrated by Greenpeace. So BP has a great idea: buy keywords on Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO) to promote its side of the story. Now the company has expanded to Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing, and the American Petroleum Institute has done some keyword purchases of its own. Look at what's going on and you see how much of a cynical effort this really is.

BP has completely flubbed the response to the oil spill. It followed the seven stages of astoundingly bad PR to the letter. BP officials tried blaming anyone and everyone else. CEO Tony Hayward has put his foot in his mouth so often that his tongue must look like an oriental carpet. Other company executives have been no better. One, Randy Prescott, reputedly said, "Louisiana isn't the only place that has shrimp." He later claimed that the quote was out of context, but not before a viral campaign disseminated his email address and phone number for direct comments.

Clearly BP wanted to take control -- outside of allegedly keeping news photographers from documenting some of the worst results of the spill. And so the company turned to the Internet to buy keywords on Google's and Yahoo's search engines. Type in "oil spill" and you're likely to get a sponsored link at the top of the page to BP's Gulf of Mexico response page.

Those who like dark humor will notice that the URL contains the term "Non_Branded_Crisis_Management-_General." Change the search term to "BP oil spill" and the URL indicates "Branded_Crisis_Management-_General." Yup, BP wants to analyze the shades of public relations disaster it has created. As for the content, here's a sample:

As part of its commitment to restore the environment and habitats in the Gulf Coast region, BP today announced that it will donate the net revenue from oil recovered from the MC252 spill to create a new wildlife fund to create, restore, improve and protect wildlife habitat along the coastline of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The creation of this fund is over and above BP's obligations under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Just one little problem. After all the billions that BP will have to pay, the net revenue -- money after direct costs -- will likely be zero.

Clearly Bing has come up in the world, because BP is also buying keywords on Microsoft's search engine. A quick check on Yahoo's ad tools suggested that someone with a large budget who wanted top exposure might have to fork over up to $6 a clickthrough to guarantee ad placement for a search on "oil spill," so BP is probably putting some serious money into its campaign. Add high tech to the list of oil spill winners, then.

And now, the American Petroleum Institute has joined the keyword frenzy with its Energy Tomorrow blog. What was the latest post yesterday? Oil Spill Protests: Who Gets Hurt? The poor service station owners, according to the API. Right, and how much of the money per gallon after taxes goes to BP? A whole lot. But, hey, they're being brave and not claiming to be the victims.

How much is online shame in today's world? At $6 for the phrase "oil spill," apparently $3 a word.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.