Exxon Valdez PR Study

One could go on for what seems to be days about the atrocities that are the so called “public relations” of the Exxon Valdez Good Friday oil spill. Questions come to mind on what the senior executives of Exxon were thinking when the news was delivered on that fateful day. Exxon Corporation would never be the same after the morning of March 24, 1989, and Lawrence G. Rawl would never be seen the same after his morning cup of coffee: “The Exxon Valdez, a 987-foot tanker […] ran aground on a reef 25 miles southwest of the port of Valdez.

The resulting rupture caused a spill of 260,000 barrels […]” (Seitel, 2011). Now the real question is how would one handle a situation like this? The answer is simple: work, and a lot of it. At the time, Exxon even seemed to be headed in the right direction. Or at least have the right ideas. The first issue that Exxon confronted was whether or not Chairman Rawl should go to ground zero (the spill) and make a public appearance (Seitel, 2011). It even appears that this was an option that was on the table at the time, but was shot down by Exxon executives: “What are you going to do? We’ve already said we have done it, we’re going to pay for it, and we’re responsible for it.” (Seitel, 2011).

This line of thought, was a mistake. The very first thing, as soon as the spill was discovered by Exxon, should have been reporting the incident to the media. It is unclear in the case study on who, or how the story first got out, but if Exxon immediately held a press conference and got ahead of the media, it could have controlled the story. Publicly admitting the incident and fault would have started the corporation off in a whole new way and a whole new light in the eyes of the public. And when it comes to the issue of Rawl going to Alaska to help, of course he should have!

Chairman Rawl should have shown up on that beach in a pair of overalls with a bottle of Dawn dish soap in one hand and a roll of Brawny paper towels in the other, picking up and cleaning off the well oiled penguins. This would have portrayed an image to the media that can’t be denied: “Exxon Chairman Lawrence Rawl shows he cares about the environment.”

Rawl could have spent two days up on the beaches of Valdez, snapped some pictures, done some interviews, and then back to New York to deal with the media; Key words being “New York” and “Media.” Establishing a media center on a wide spot in the road in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness had to be one of the worst ideas I have ever ran across. Even in today’s times of geo-synchronous satellites and the World Wide Web streaming news 24-7, this would have been a bad idea. Not to mention this was the 80’s. Now some credit has to be handed to the Exxon executives for realizing that the seriousness of this issue required the institution of a “media center.”

They had the common sense to realize that the media needed to be acknowledged in this situation. But once again, mistakes were made. Being defensive, offensive, and even argumentative was not the right call when talking to members of the press. If Exxon was to realize how important the press was to the image of the company, things would have been handled much differently. Firstly, keeping the media informed would have been a great step.

This would have allowed Exxon to control the flow of essential and non-essential information to the public, and would have built trust with the various media departments. Trust, being key in an image situation, would have been further gained if and when Exxon admitted to the full facts of the situation; such as the intoxicated tanker captain. In a situation of this caliber, information like this would have been unearthed eventually, and once again if it was Exxon who relayed the story to the media, they would have controlled the situation. Control of the situation would have given Exxon the ability to time their responses how they saw fit. But obviously what Exxon saw “fit” was not what needed to be done, terrible decisions were made such as waiting a week to make a public statement about the spill.

Timing is key in a high profile issue like this. The best advice I could recommend would be that of the Sugarhill Gang’s 1999 classic; Jump On It. Fast action, or “jumping on it” would by far have been the best choice for this situation. All thought timing is important, I believe that relaying all the information known to the public as soon as it became available would have increased Exxon’s chance of saving face. This would also have moved up the company’s public relations response time: acting quicker to set up press conferences, acting quicker to help coordinate relief efforts, and even setting up a charitable fund for those affected.

One also has to take in consideration the long term PR initiatives. In this area of public relations, I believe that consistency is the key. Constantly letting the media know how clean up efforts are proceeding, even months after the spill. If Exxon is bombarding the media with information, such as “we are doing this” and “we are doing that”, then the media would have less of a chance to spin the information, and use it against the company. Long term PR would be very important as well.

Once it’s all cleaned and the bad news is starting to die off, use this time to put the company in a positive light. It would have been great if Exxon spear headed some charities, and/or programs that closely monitored tanker transportation in order to prevent this type of incident from happening again. This would have shown the maturity of the company and willingness to prevent this type of accident from ever happening again. This obviously would have been an aggressive public relations strategy from the beginning, and as time progressed slowly worked its way into a low key style of management.

Unfortunately, something of this size is not easily swept under the rug and cannot be ignored. Which is what the executives at Exxon Valdez tried to do. I will repeat myself for not any reason but to get the point across: quick decision making, and an aggressive style of public relations and media interaction would have saved Exxon from this PR nightmare. But due to Chairman Rawls “it will fix itself” approach, this case did turn into the “textbook example of what not to do when an unexpected crisis thrusts a company into the limelight” (Seitel, 2011). Seitel, Fraiser P. (2011). The Practice of Public Relations. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Publishing.