ANALYSIS: Profile - Cohen brings law and order to ExxonMobil publicaffairs - After years in the legal department, Ken Cohen now puts hismeticulous nature and government affairs savvy to work as ExxonMobil'sVP of public affairs...

Saying that ExxonMobil and the lawyer who leads its communications

staff prefer low profiles might be an understatement. There are no

corporate logos on the nondescript company headquarters in this ordinary

Dallas suburb, and no one gets in without an appointment.



But keeping ExxonMobil off the media radar would be as impossible as

hiding an offshore drilling rig. The world's largest oil and gas company

topped this year's Fortune 500 with $210 billion in 2000

revenue.



Exxon refineries are able to handle more than six million barrels a

day.



Add to that a petrochemical business, coal mining assets and electric

power generation and it's easy to see why the firm's in the

spotlight.



"Right now, we seem to be the first call reporters place if it's a

burning energy issue, right after they get a sound bite from the

politician," says Ken Cohen, the company's VP of public affairs.



Fingers point to oil companies anytime pump prices rise, but Cohen

laments that journalists don't give much play to stories that inevitably

surface months later, stating that investigators found no proof of

market manipulation.



Currently, Exxon is focusing on communicating how reformulated gas can

lead to local shortages. Patchwork environmental rules require different

gasoline formulations in different cities, meaning oil companies can't

ship in surplus from elsewhere when supplies run low, Cohen

explains.



"Our best defense is the facts. We just have to make sure we get an

accurate view of what the facts are," says Cohen, who believes his

methodical nature and government issues background carry over well into

communications.



The company makes sure the facts are fully available when dealing with

zealous activists pelting it with a plethora of allegations (See PRWeek,

June 11, p. 15). Exxon Valdez, for example, "remains a cause celeb for

hardcore environmentalists" and garners inside-page coverage when courts

make rulings in still-pending litigation, Cohen notes.



ExxonMobil often doesn't respond directly to activists, but publishes

rebuttals in its weekly advertisement on The New York Times Op-Ed page

and on its Web site. One recent subject of discussion was the company's

support for an agreement to end the sale of leaded gasoline in the

Sub-Sahara region.



"We are willing to meet and talk to present the company position," says

Cohen. "Once we've done that and a group demonstrates that they don't

want to be bothered with the facts, we've learned that it's

pointless."



Traditionally, oil companies like ExxonMobil relied on the American

Petroleum Institute to carry industry messages. "We are finding more and

more that we need to talk in our own right in addition to what the trade

association might be saying," Cohen says.



A career Exxon attorney, Cohen took the top communications job in late

1999. Appointed at the same time as the Exxon/Mobil merger, Cohen

consolidated the companies' communications employees.



Today he supervises 477 people worldwide, about 125 fewer than the

companies employed separately. The terms "public relations" and "media

relations" don't appear on his division's organizational chart. Instead,

the phrase "public affairs" is used to reflect the firm's marriage of PR

with government affairs. About a third of his staff handles government

and community relations, another third engage in standard PR activities,

and the rest perform specialized functions like writing.



Externally, ExxonMobil employs no agency of record, but works on

projects with Fleishman-Hillard and Hill & Knowlton. Dallas' Sunwest

Communications represents its charitable foundation. Cohen bounces ideas

off agency executives, often turning to Sunwest CEO Andrew Stern as a

sounding board.



Cohen says he's learned a lot since setting aside his law books, and his

background proves he's a quick study. After skipping his last

undergraduate year to attend law school, he earned a Master's and taught

at Indiana University School of Law.



"I felt in order to be a better teacher, I'd better work for a few

years," Cohen recalls. "That sabbatical has lasted for 25 years." He

joined Exxon directly from academia and moved up the legal ranks before

sidestepping into communications.



"I was very content and happy being one of our lawyers," says Cohen, who

claims not to know why he was selected to lead public affairs. He had

worked closely with the communications team as its attorney and his wife

is a former Exxon public affairs staffer.



Jim Langdon, a senior partner with the law firm Aiken Gump Strauss Hauer

& Feld, got to know Cohen through legal work his firm does for

ExxonMobil in Washington, DC. "He's a tenacious competitor," says

Langdon, who like Cohen, played college tennis. "The few times I would

play golf with him, there would be no such thing as customer golf," by

which he means there are no breaks for people with whom Cohen does

business with.



Langdon and other associates, like ExxonMobil's general counsel Charles

Matthews, describe Cohen as a good listener who doesn't always show his

hand.



Cohen admits that perhaps the biggest challenge in moving from law to PR

is switching off the part of the brain that repeats, "Anything you say

can and will be used against you in a court of law." "It's letting go of

the lawyer side," says Cohen, "and letting the communicator side win

out."



KEN COHEN



1976-1977: Earns law Master's in economic regulation from Yale



1977: Assistant professor of law, Indiana University



1977-1989: Joins Exxon's legal department



1989-1991: Assistant general counsel for Exxon Co. International



1991-1995: Senior counsel and coordinator, Exxon's corporate law

department



1995-1999: General counsel, Exxon Chemical



1999-present: VP of public affairs, ExxonMobil.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.