Rebuilding the Gulf: PR after BP

Nearly 650 miles of Gulf of Mexico coast line have been environmentally and financially devastated by what President Barack Obama deemed “a potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.”

The oil-laden waters, fishing bans and social hostility of coastal towns caused a subsequent decline in tourism to the region. Gulf towns are now seeking guidance from public relations firms in efforts to rebuild their image and emphasize the region’s remaining environmental and touristic assets.

Bayou La Batre, dubbed the “Seafood Capital of Alabama,” has hired Birmingham-based Direct Communications and Panorama Public Relations to conduct media relations and social media maintenance.

As of June, Panorama Public Relations implemented Bayou La Batre’s first website, Twitter and Facebook account; marking the city’s first advancement toward establishing an online presence. Through social media, city officials addressed rumors and provided accurate, timely information on the disaster level. Currently, Bayou La Batre has about 430 Facebook friends and 340 Twitter followers.

“Bayou La Batre has been on the map, but they haven’t been on the Web,” said Rachel Barbour, administrative assistant at the Bayou La Batre Area Chamber of Commerce. “All the city ever had was a Yahoo account.”

Conducting my own research on Bayou La Batre’s Internet presence, I found the city’s official website difficult to find. Several smaller sites provided scant information on the city and its attractions, and it seems there is still much work to be done. Bayou La Batre is an unfortunate example of an unprepared city. Despite its size of less than 3,200 residents, the city should have had a PR strategy in place to communicate with residents and tourists in case of crisis.

According to the Urban Land Institute, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly 60 percent of the city’s buildings and washed ashore 75 percent of the town’s shrimp boats. During the Katrina recovery, it would seem logical to implement a PR strategy in the event of a similar occurrence. I feel their efforts will only be mildly successful because Bayou La Batre’s Internet presence in an infantile stage with no established relationship with its community via web. Even the majority of Google and Bing image search results show desolate photos of Katrina and the oil spill’s devastation on the town; not a great way to lure travelers. It seems desperate, rather than strategic, that the efforts are only beginning now; after two devastating events.

Search engine image results show oil spill devestation on Bayou La Batre

Search engine image results show oil spill devestation on Bayou La Batre

Here are a few points on the importance of social media in businesses. In this case, Bayou La Batre is the “business” and failed to utilize social media to maintain an image, promote tourism, improve search engine ratings and communicate with “customers” (residents) until it was too late.

What type of Internet presence do you think a city should have? What would you expect/want your city’s website and social media to provide?

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4 Responses to Rebuilding the Gulf: PR after BP

  1. kdaoust says:

    In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, social media and the idea of having a web presence or following through social media was just barely surfacing and understood. In fact, Twitter wasn’t even launched until 2006. It’s unrealistic to expect that a city would have a genuinely established web presence through social media at that time. However, I agree that steps should have been taken by Bayou La Batre (and the other cities in that area) to establish a social media presence in the wake of Katrina and following the success of Twitter to prepare for another disaster.

    To be candid, some city official screwed up. There are PR and Communication officials who represent the city who should have jumped on the opportunity to do everything in their power to repair their area’s reputation following Katrina–what better way than to establish a web presence and a dedicated following on outlets like Facebook and Twitter?

    I couldn’t have said it better myself when you wrote “…Bayou La Batre has an Internet presence in an infantile stage and no established relationship with its community via web…It seems desperate, rather than strategic, that the efforts are only beginning now; after two devastating events.”

    Why wouldn’t the city already have a crisis plan waiting on the sideline, in case of a disaster like Katrina? And even more importantly, why wouldn’t they have created one following Katrina if by chance another disaster came their way? It seems to me that the Bayou La Batre city officials never had Moms that told them “better safe than sorry.”

    Great post, Leah.

    What type of Internet presence do you think a city should have? What would you expect/want your city’s website and social media to provide?

  2. alervin says:

    It really depends on what the city has to offer. If the city is a small community where the economy depends solely on small businesses and fishing, then they need to implement a plan to address the concerns of residents. Fishermen are struggling in this region as their main source of income has been hindered. These sorts of communities need to implement a crisis plan to reassure residents that efforts are being made to ensure their economic well being. In the case of Bayou La Batre, a social media strategy might work for tourism, especially since this town boasts that it is the “Seafood Capitol of Alabama.” Then again, this town functions on fishing and shrimping and doesn’t appear to have much to offer a tourist. It runs mostly an import/export operation; not all that appealing to would-be travelers. This town really needs to focus on their internal PR. In a town this size, with fishermen as their primary residents, a social media strategy might fail. Fishermen are away from home for long periods of time, and might not be as in-tune to social media as larger cities. To reassure resident of their economic well-being they need to practice a more face-to-face approach–I say this because it is most likely a town where everyone knows everyone else and therefore needs to be more personal. The world is becoming more digital, and eventually even the smallest towns will catch up. The PR people need to be aware of this and should definitely begin working on a social media campaign, but right now I think the residents need personal communication from town leaders.

    In the case of a town that experiences a high volume of tourists, it is a completely different story. Many tourists look to the Internet and to social media to make their traveling decisions and these towns really need to focus on this forum for communication. In tourist towns, there are so many people cycling through that a face-to-face approach would not work. They need to reach the largest audience possible and let them know what they are doing to fix the problem.

    Branding is important to boost tourism. If a town depends on tourism then it really needs to push their brand through social media. If a town depends more on import/export and small businesses, then they really need to reassure their residents. They need to decide what the best forum for this is based on the needs of the people.

  3. lrstarr says:

    Thanks, KDaoust and great point on the Twitter start-up time/Katrina correlation. @alervin: I agree- towns of such small population do require a PR/social media strategy catered toward a differed demographic than that of an urban tourist destination. But, one of the firm’s objectives was to position the city as a destination beyond the oil spill; to create a renewed image. Upon searching the town in Google and Bing, the site and image results are sad. The city’s identity has become the disasters it has endured. Bayou la Batre needs a means (website + social media) of contributing to its identity- it can no longer rely solely on the depressing photos from news sources to fill search engine results. Though their city is small enough to not NEED such tools, it should have them to (even in the slightest way) be considered a desirable town to visit. Without social media and an adequate website, they are helpless in defining themselves.

  4. bajohn10 says:

    I completely agree that the environmental catastrophes that have occurred in the South in the last five years have tested the PR plans of many states. As you mentioned in your post, it appears as though Alabama did not have any type of plan in place to deal with the instant media attention.

    I admire their efforts to hire a company to build up their Web presence, however this is clearly a reactionary effort. Had Bayou La Batre started a proactive campaign just a year before, they would have had a foundation of online followers that would have stood by them as they launched their efforts to communicate about the oil spill.

    Although Twitter, Facebook and websites are relatively easy methods of communicating with a particular audience, I don’t think they should be taken for granted. A large number of fans, followers and users cannot be acquired in one day. It takes time to build trust and reliability. In this regard, Bayou La Batre failed. I do, however, acknowledge that they are now actively engaging their online audience to prevent further misunderstanding, which I think is a step in the right direction.

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