Exxon buoys PR amid oil industry backlash

IRVING, TX: Exxon Mobil Corp., whose 2005 profits were the largest of any company, is launching efforts to educate consumers and media about the inner workings of the oil industry, and the costs of producing, shipping, and refining crude.

IRVING, TX: Exxon Mobil Corp., whose 2005 profits were the largest of any company, is launching efforts to educate consumers and media about the inner workings of the oil industry, and the costs of producing, shipping, and refining crude.

Consumers and politicians have lashed out at Exxon and others recently, as oil companies have posted record earnings while consumers have paid $3 a gallon at the pump. Exxon announced a record quarter of more than $10 billion in earnings, and $36.1 billion in earnings for the year.

Ken Cohen, VP of public affairs at the company, said he and his team, which comprises 400 staffers worldwide, would use PR, advertising, and media tours, write opinion pieces, and meet with editorial boards as part of the push.

Cohen said the company had a "pretty active PR program" in the past, but the growing concern among consumers, as well as the Windfall Profits Tax proposals in Washington, DC, are causing the company to ramp up its efforts.

The crux of this effort, he said, would be face-to-face discussions with policy-makers, citizen groups, and members of the media to go over its Energy Outlook presentation, Exxon's basic communication tool.

"It's a compilation of basic facts on world demand and supply of energy," Cohen said. "Once you have that as your reference point, you then can move to a discussion of other issues. But you have to start the discussion with some common understanding of fact." He said the presentation is also being given at college campuses, high schools, and to academics.

Other outreach efforts will include executive speeches, media relations, and government relations activities.

While Exxon works with a number of PR firms, including Weber Shandwick, the effort was carried out entirely in-house.

Cohen said his team spends a lot of time with energy reporters, but that it needs to do more on the local and regional levels while reaching out to media outlets that don't normally cover the industry.

"We're thinking of targeting more audiences with this information," Cohen said. "There's a hunger for [it]."

Fadel Gheit, SVP of oil and gas resources at Oppenheimer & Co., has been covering Exxon and the oil industry for 20 years as an analyst. He said Exxon's willingness to talk about the business isn't new.

"Things were in place in anticipation of this type of change for some time now," he said. "It has begun to mellow a bit, but a company that big with the culture it has can't be expected to change overnight."

Gheit said ever since the Exxon Valdez incident, the company has become somewhat of a fortress and has closed itself off from interaction with the media.

"It got a lot of negative coverage and eventually had to abandon its offices in New York and go somewhere where no one could find it," said Gheit, who added that the time has come for Exxon to become more open with the media and consumers.

"This is a brand and franchise that needs to be kept in high esteem," he said. "Being friends is better than being enemies."

In January, Rex Tillerson, succeeded Lee Raymond as Exxon's CEO, a change environmentalists met with guarded optimism.

Dan Seligman, national campaign director at the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of national security, labor, environmental, and business leaders fighting for energy independence from foreign energy sources, isn't sure if any PR push will help the company change consumer perception.

"Exxon's business ties us to some of the most unstable parts of the world," Seligman said, adding that it finds itself in a very precarious communications position right now.

"I don't know how much spin can change that reality, " he said, "especially when it's brought home to motorists every time they fill up at the gas station."

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