I have an interest in ExxonMobil‘s public relations through a former CIPR Diploma student. So I’ve been following its reputational issues – notably recent attempts to be more open and particularly to talk with blog-sites. One of these, The Oil Drum, has a fascinating post that highlights the company’s PR challenges in confronting a rotten reputation. The negativity towards ExxonMobil (Esso in the UK) is largely driven by partisan dislike from various anti-groups and individuals, but the company has undoubtedly demonstrated poor PR judgement and questionable corporate practices (mainly in the US and primarily, but not exclusively, historic).
Overall, the target bloggers – such as Energy Outlook and Environmental Economics – are positive that the oil giant is open to discussion. Although, like myself, they remain dubious that this is more communications effort than robust cultural change.
As a former climate change denier, the change in strategy from Exxon-Mobil is reminisent of game theory models in relation to organisational/public conflict as outlined by Priscilla Murphy.
In particular, the approach has elements of a game theory of “tag”. Ken Cohen, Vice President of Public Affairs, definitely seems to feel pursued on many fronts to provide information that the organisation is choosing or is unable to release. Exxon-Mobil is the quarry being hunted – is it simply changing direction to avoid being caught?
Murphy argues “tag” can be an effective crisis management strategy and cites the actions of Ford Motor Company over the Pinto car in the 1970s. In brief, the car’s inability to meet new safety standards saw “an eight-year chase as Ford eluded passage of the guideline by strategically switching directions while the Pinto became the nation’s best-selling subcompact.” Although this strategy can offer short term benefits, it appears unethical and duplicitous, with the risk of major reputational damage.
I have some sympathy with ExxonMobil regarding the current hysteria over climate change and global warming – but regardless of the reality, this is a topic where alternative views are not currently allowed, especially by businesses reporting mega-profits. The company must avoid appearing to dodge the issue and ensure the more open public position espoused by PR is reflected, not just in communications, but in actions evidenced throughout the company.
Walking the talk is perhaps the hardest challenge on the long road to reaching the destination of a good reputation.