Bush's speech puts oil company PR on notice

State of the Union addresses are ritualistic and often insubstantial. Still, oil company communicators must assume they'll have to respond if their companies and clients are in the line of fire of the President's mission.

State of the Union addresses are ritualistic and often insubstantial. Still, oil company communicators must assume they'll have to respond if their companies and clients are in the line of fire of the President's mission.

The spotlight, flattering or not, demands a pose.

In a world of instantaneous publishing, media addicts were served a pre-speech bombshell that George W. Bush, lifetime oil magnate, would use the rostrum to declare that, "America is addicted to oil." One might have expected a mention of oil-company profits last year, but PR teams at ExxonMobil and others were likely sharpening their pencils at the prospect of Bush, a former wildcatter, calling them out for the money they've made.

Indeed, Bush trod paths well-worn by environmentalists, libertarians, and political pragmatists of various stripes as he explained that Americans use a lot of oil, maybe even too much, and that a lot of it comes from unstable Mideast governments. No mystery. But that was it. He moved on to matters of substance: switchgrass, ethanol, human-animal hybrids being developed in hidden labs somewhere.

Bush devoted a mere four paragraphs to the oil concern, much - one imagines - to the relief of the refiners who are working communications staffers hard these days to explain their bulging purses. Exxon, which reported $36.1 billion in 2005 profits, launched an ad campaign last week, in tandem with the American Petroleum Institute, explaining that refiners spend a lot of money to make that money. Luckily for Exxon and others there was no tongue lashing, or worse, an urgent appeal for conservation.

Oil companies dodged a bullet, but they are not out of the woods yet. One hopes Bush's declaration might nudge oil companies toward transparency. Change could be afoot. Exxon, Shell, and others: Take note.

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