Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the Prince William Sound off of the Alaskan coast causing the 36th largest oil spill in history (Baker, n.d.; Fearn-Banks, 2011; Holusha, 1989; Moss, 2010). Though the initial ecological insult was severe, Exxon’s poor response to the emergency is noted as having the most significance (Baker, n.d.; Holusha, 1989). According to Fearn-Banks (2011), the initial public relations response was swift, but the public perception, especially with the obvious absence of CEO Lawrence G. Rawl from the public spotlight, was that the company did not view the incident with the importance that it deserved (Holusha, 1989). “The biggest mistake was that Exxon’s chairman … sent a succession of lower-ranking executives to Alaska to deal with the spill instead of going there himself and taking control of the situation in a forceful, highly visible way” (Holusha, 1989, para. 6). Rawl made comments about being technologically obsolete as a reason for not responding to the incident personally, and in a later television interview, Rawl explained that it was not the responsibility of the CEO to read specific response plans, then he went on to blame the media for the crisis (Baker, n.d.; Fearn-Banks, 2011).
According to Fearn-Banks (2011), Don Cornet, Exxon’s Alaska public relations coordinator, rushed to the scene and instituted a plan focused on the clean-up upon hearing of the incident; however, resources were scarce and the plan was slow to implement. Alaskan oil industry regulations held that the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, an oil company consortium, was ultimately responsible for the initial response, which was soon taken over by Exxon. It was Alyeska’s involvement in the incident that introduced George Mason, an experienced crisis communications public relations expert for the company that represented Alyeska, into the spotlight. Mason worked with Cornet to streamline the media response and did much to limit the impact of Exxon’s poor media relations, even in light of Rawl’s disastrous commentary. Without the efforts of Mason, Cornet, and a few others, it appears that Exxon’s reputation would have suffered much more.
The primary issues identified in Exxon’s response to the Valdez incident, according to Baker (n.d.), are 1) a lack of resources and preparedness for a crisis of this magnitude, 2) failing to commit to prevention efforts in the future, and 3) the perceived indifference to the ecological shock.
According to Holusha (1989), Exxon’s response to the Alaskan spill was immediately identified as highlighting what not to do in responding to a crisis. Holusha compared Rawl’s messaging and response with that of the Ashland Oil spill and the Union Carbide incident in Bhopal, India, in which both CEOs responded immediately, availing themselves to the media to answer questions and respond to scrutiny.
The Exxon Valdez spill was significant, large, costly, and affected many industries and lifestyles in Alaska. Rawl’s response should have been immediate, and he should have taken responsibility to be apprised of all efforts being undertaken to rectify the situation. Legitimizing Rawl’s concerns of being a distraction to local efforts, he could have held frequent press conferences in the mainland United States, which would have limited the media’s need to send so many representatives directly to Alaska. This would have helped to show cooperation with the media as well as allow Rawl to address any concerns that the public might have. The messaging should have been that Exxon will do everything needed to return Alaska back to pre-spill status no matter the cost or manpower required.
Today, social media presents a unique opportunity for companies to address their public. Recently, Connecticut Light and Power utilized Facebook and Twitter, two popular social media programs, to provide real-time updates to their affected customers during a freak early snowstorm that put most of Connecticut without power for weeks (Singer, 2011; State of Connecticut, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, 2011). Though there are still concerns that Connecticut Light and Power were unprepared for such a crisis, without the deliberate effort to maintain communication with customers, the corporate image would have been much worse, as Exxon experienced.
It is a common precept in crisis communications that crises will occur and hopes can only be made to minimize their effect (Fearn-Banks, 2011). While preparing for such a crisis, a focus on communication and messaging should be paramount. The more the public trusts that the company will respond to the emergency effectively, the more apt they will be to acknowledge the difficulties involved in such a response. Messaging should be open, honest, and realistic. Every effort to use a multitude of media (e.g. radio, television, print, internet, telephone, et al.) to maintain a sense of transparency should be used to promote messages that accept responsibility and sets realistic goals. These communications, however, should not be unidirectional. A conversation needs to take place where the public can have their concerns and curiosity addressed in a fair and open environment.
By addressing the concerns of all stakeholders in a timely, open manner, corporate images will fare much better even in light of the worst crisis imaginable.
Baker, M. (n.d.). Companies in crisis – What not to do when it all goes wrong: Exxon Mobil and the Exxon Valdez. Retrieved from http://www.mallenbaker.net/csr/crisis03.html
Coombs, W. T. (2012). Ongoing crisis communication: Planning managing, and responding (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Fearn-Banks, K. (2011). “Textbook” crises. Crisis communications: a casebook approach (4th ed; pp. 90-109). New York, NY: Routledge.
Holusha, J. (1989, April 21). Exxon’s public-relations problem. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/21/business/exxon-s-public-relations-problem.html
Moss, L. (2010, July 16). The 13 largest oil spills in history. Mother Nature Network. Retrieved from http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/stories/the-13-largest-oil-spills-in-history
Singer, S. (2011, November 4). CT utility takes heat over winter storm response. News 8 WTNH. Retrieved from http://www.wtnh.com/dpp/weather/winter_weather/ct-utility-takes-heat-over-winter-storm-response-
State of Connecticut, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. (2011, November 8). Winter storm October 29, 2011 (Situation Report #49). Retrieved from http://advocacy.ccm-ct.org/Resources.ashx?id=802e4723-2e4a-4a61-896e-f51eafbbd4c0