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Is Chevron, Shell's Twittering an Innovation Indicator?

Big Oil's embrace of social media falls somewhere between a limp handshake and a bear hug. So I was intrigued by Shell's announcement that it will use Twitter to publish hurricane updates for the upcoming storm season. Shell's not the only one riding the Twitter bandwagon. Chevron, for example, has a new media adviser, whose tasks include official company Twitterer.

With some much tweeting going on by tweeple, has the innovation litmus test shifted? And can energy companies educate, update and improve their image and bottom line in 140 characters or less?

Traditionally, energy companies are considered innovative when they invest in research or come up with new, more efficient ways to extract oil from hard-to-reach places. But how a company communicates is an indicator of innovation throughout its operations and within its executive ranks.

It's not so important that oil companies are creating Twitter profiles. A quick search on the social networking site reveals a number of oil and gas producers with profiles. More indicative is how or if they actually use it. Most of the profiles have simply been reserved and there are no updates or followers. Or if you're Exxon, someone unaffiliated with the company's public relations machinery did the job for you.

Take Chevron, for example. The company's new media adviser Justin Higgs tweets official company news and links to earnings reports and press releases. He also links to third-party news and blogs. Of course, that part is filtered. News and commentary posted on Chevron's Twitter profile are NOT going to accuse the company of polluting Ecuador's rainforest. Instead, the posts provide links to editorials, blogs and reports that offer a more supportive view.

What makes Chevron an interesting case is that he dialogues with his 316 followers. Whereas, Shell simply puts the information out there.

Shell's hurricane tweets or its more official company tweets are probably not going to quell investor anger over its senior executive pay packages, which BNET wrote about earlier this week. But it's tweets shouldn't cause any additional problems either, so its a worthy public relations endeavor. Shell also has a blog on climate change.

Chevron is taking a riskier and more innovative approach because it is not simply sending out controlled messages. Company leaders are allowing Higgs to argue points on Twitter and in the greater blogosphere.

"I do all things social media," said Higgs in a phone interview Thursday. For example, he works with the American Petroleum Institute and its Energy Tommorow Web site to involve Chevron executives in the trade organization's blogging conference calls and podcasts.

Higgs also provides "crisis communication," which means he monitors and responds to "misinformation about Chevron" within the blogosphere and the multiple platforms of social media. Some, not all, of that involves responding to blogs and articles covering the lawsuit filed against Chevron by Ecuadorean and American activists, he said.

"If a blog or article leaves something out or if there is misinformation, I will interject with the other side of things," said Higgs.

Chevron also has launched a youtube page, where it aired its rebuttal to a planned "60 Minutes" report on the Chevron - Ecuador lawsuit. Chevron also will eventually add an official company Facebook page and, Higgs adds, will provide hurricane updates as well. I can't wait for the Shell versus Chevron hurricane update Twitter-off.

Chevron's interactive PR approach certainly displays innovation. It'll be harder to determine if it actually contributes to its bottom line. That is, of course, until someone builds a tweets-to-profits APP.

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