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BP’s “small people” gaffe: a study in the effects of quotability

Quotability is a big factor in the life span of a social media frenzy, so the “small people” comments by BP’s chairman make for an interesting incident to examine through social media monitoring.

After four hours of negotiation at the White House, BP executives agreed to create a $20 billion escrow account to aid in the economic recovery of Gulf Coast businesses affected by the deep sea gusher. On his way out, the company’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg from Sweden, spoke to reporters.

“People say that large oil companies don’t care about the small people, but we care,” he said. “We care about the small people.”

Although this is a direct translation of “den lilla människen,” meant to refer to “the little guys” facing the Goliaths of the world, Americans have been outraged by its apparent insensitivity. Here’s a look at how Svanberg’s unfortunate mistranslation has swept through the social media universe.

Total Volume
A broad Cision Social Media Dashboard search using the key words “small people” and either “BP,” “Svanberg” or “Hayward” returned these results:
Wednesday, June 16th:  2,135 posts
Thursday, June 17th: 3,416 posts
Total Posts:  5,541 posts

The topic picked up first early Wednesday afternoon in the forums. On Phishhook.com, Metamunch first referenced an online article and quipped, “These guys are just asking to be publicly executed.”
However, forum posts and replies, which peaked Thursday morning at about 6 a.m. didn’t quite reach 270 posts, making up less than 5 percent of all the buzz.


The blogs, 783 posts or 15 percent, covered the issue from every angle as they usually do. Chris Weigl’s blog calmly recounted all aspects of BP’s day in Washington while Climateer Investing wondered aloud, “Was BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg Abducted by Aliens?”

The statement posted to YouTube by FireDogLake, one of many reposts of the video, was viewed thousands of times and sparked an exceptional conversation on the comments page. The five-minute clip included BP’s apologies for almost every aspect of the event. What the clip showed that other media could not was Svanberg’s sincerity when explaining his concern for the “small people,” but that he quickly walked away thereafter while the media roared with questions.

Commenters threw facts, opinion, insights and insults at each other in almost 200 posts. They ranged from, “Their chairman certainly comes across better than arrogant tony hayward,” to the very next post which stated, “This guy should be suckerpunched with a bowling ball!” In response to a base criticism of his/her opinion, TheJourney000 said, “And, just to point something out, these comment sections are meant for individuals to leave their thoughts and opinions. Whether or not others agree with those comments is inconsequential. Your offense is duly noted, scoffed at and quickly forgotten. Peace.”

There was heavy representation by Swedes, most trying to explain the mistranslation, some expressing their disappointment in their fellow countryman. In a rare contribution that added perspective beyond this incident, SimonsMatthew said, “Really, if you want to see REAL environmental abuse look at what US mining companies like Freeport McMoran are doing in Papua. But of course, AMerica is more important. Environmentally though, it is no where near as valuable. The real tragedy is what is going on by US multinationals right now in the developing world. And that is NOT an accident. BP is a saint compared with these guys.” But that thought received no responses from other commenters.

Of course, the lion’s share of content goes to Twitter which picked up later Wednesday morning and exploded Thursday evening from 14 tweets from 6 to 7 p.m. to 646 tweets from 7 to 8 p.m. The hourly aggregate was about 2,700 individual comments.

But to keep things in perspective, 2,700 tweets in two days isn’t a big deal in a universe of 50 million, and Svanberg will be glad to know that USA’s tie with Slovenia owned online conversation with 35,500 posts—ten comments to every one on BP.

About Cision Staff

Cision's research staff makes over 20,000 media updates to Cision's Media Database each day! For more updates and other thought leadership in the industry, follow @Media_Moves.

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