Photos of brown pelicans and other birds dripping with oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill are hard for Internet surfers to avoid these days, and even harder to turn away from no matter how much they cause viewers to gape in horror. If you're the social media sensation known as "Leroy Stick," you post a tweet like this in way of a corporate communique from BP: "So YOU want to see pictures of dead animals covered in oil and WE are the bad guys!? Sick bastards. #bpcares"
The Twitter account known as @BPGlobalPR now has over 135,000 followers. Why is a much-reviled company so popular? Look closely: the black-and-white BP logo at the bottom of the tweets shows a smudge in the bottom left corner.
The account is satire and the writer is anonymous. What's more, the oft-retweeted and Facebooked assertion that BP wants Twitter to shut the account down isn't true. (The punchline from @BPGlobalPR: "Twitter wants BP to close the oil leak ruining the ocean.") According to both BP and Twitter, the account is operating without challenge. BP (BP) spokesman Toby Odone told Adviertising Age, "I'm not aware of whether BP has made any calls to have it taken down or addressed. People are entitled to their views on what we're doing and we have to live with those."
The Man (or Woman) Behind "Leroy Stick"
The writer known as Leroy Stick says he hasn't been contacted by anyone from BP. "I haven't heard a thing from anyone. We blew up over a weekend and I like to think that the reason we didn't get shut down immediately was because no one bothered to check until Monday. By that Monday we were selling shirts for charity and we had something like 10,000 followers," he wrote in an email (he won't give phone or in-person interviews).
That Monday was May 24, and in the time between that day and June 7 he has posted over 200 status updates, made Twitter's coveted "Top Tweets" list with nearly every entry, and added 125,000 more followers. The most recent update to have been re-tweeted (or posted by another Twitter user) more than 100 times to earn that honor was from Friday, reflecting the news that fishermen were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement with BP in exchange for economic-hardship payments: "By reading this tweet, you have agreed to a non-disclosure agreement. #bpcares #shutup"
Some other popular tweets: "Safety is our primary concern. Well, profits, then safety. Oh, no- profits, image, then safety, but still- it's right up there." And: "Look, cut us some slack. We've kinda just been winging this whole 'deepwater drilling' thing."
Twitter isn't the humorist's only outlet. Last weekend, Stick delivered $10,000 in proceeds from t-shirts bearing the smudged-oil BP logo to the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans. While there, he paid for an airplane to pull a banner reading "Get Wells Soon! [Heart] BPGlobalPR." It's a way, he told AdAge, to expand the campaign beyond the horizons of the geek-heavy Twitter universe, for "people to see this on the streets in their everyday life. I have an idea to start a traveling show that would utilize local acts in every city we visit. I'm very excited about it and I'd love to pitch it to someone."
Providing an Outlet for People's Anger
As a campaign, Stick's Twitter stream and possible roadshow is one way to deal with the rage Americans are feeling toward BP. "If you are angry, speak up. Don't let people forget what has happened here... let's hold BP's feet to the fire. Let's make them own up to and fix their mistakes NOW and most importantly, let's make sure we don't let them do this again," he writes.
It's hard not to ask Stick: "What's in it for you?" This is a huge undertaking; he hasn't kept any of the money he's raised by selling shirts himself. He has a day job, but says his employer is "understanding" and, while he wouldn't directly answer whether or not his employer knew he was Stick, he says, "my employers know I've dropped everything to concentrate on the oil spill." (I'll just file that under, "source prefers not to answer.") He's already been accused via erroneous Twitter retweets of having inked a book deal (though the writer connected to the book deal isn't Stick, after all). He says there is no book -- at least not yet.
"My dream would be to get paid to shed some light on serious subjects in a humorous way. So far, I think I've proven that I can do that. Hopefully I'll get that chance," he wrote. "I'm absolutely fine with protesting and punking officials, but there are plenty of ways to help out... This whole project has been very collaborative so far and I'd like to keep it that way. I want people to send me their photos, their graphics, their music, their videos, their poetry, their jokes, their ideas and anything else they've got to offer."
A Simple Method to Deliver a Complex Message
Many of his avid followers have responded. Stick sends links to a picture of SpongeBob SquarePants drowning in oil; a video of a musician playing "the BP Blues"; a compendium of satiric BP billboards. They are rife with sorrow and black humor; the crunchy environmentalist in me is just sad, and I ask Stick, what about him, is he a treehugger?
"I actually do not consider myself a treehugger, although this whole thing has made me much more aware of the environmental repercussions of the choices I make in my every day life, " he writes. "Full disclosure: I do drive a car and I have filled up at BP and Arco stations in the past. I think my situation is pretty indicative of the dilemma facing every American. I want to do more, but it simply isn't feasible... Hybrid cars are great, but I can't afford one. We can only hope that the silver lining in this disaster will be a real significant push off of oil to renewable clean energy."
As a message, it's complex. His Twitter account is simpler, portraying BP as the one bumbling-and-uncaring perpetrator, without a lot of nuance around the roles of government, other oil companies, pundits and political figures who are the cheerleaders behind deepwater drilling.
Like the oil leaking into the Gulf, it won't end anytime soon, says Stick, who ends his email to me with an awards-ceremony-like acknowledgment, "I'd like to thank all of my friends for helping me with this, my family for being supportive, and everyone on Twitter who got it and spread the word." He plans to keep tweeting "as long as BP has a PR department," making the social media waters for BP just as dangerous as the waters in the Gulf are for the birds.
Meet 'Leroy Stick,' BP's Biggest Social Networking Rival