Paul Holmes

Exxon should understand there is nothing phony about a PR approach to global issues

Exxon should understand there is nothing phony about a PR approach to global issues

A couple of weeks ago, the Financial Times ran a brief article analyzing the different attitudes toward global warming among various oil companies.

BP and Shell, the article said, are investing heavily in alternative energy sources and speaking out about the potentially damaging impact of continued global warming. ExxonMobil, meanwhile, is "dismissing such initiatives as public relations."

If I worked in PR for ExxonMobil (and, to be honest, I can't imagine a lonelier job), I'd probably have my r?sum? out on the street after reading that article, in which the sentiment attributed to the company's chairman and CEO, Lee Raymond, is nothing more than a variant of the "just PR" trope, in which PR is used to mean an approach that is superficial and cosmetic, lacking substance.

To be fair, it's not entirely clear whether Raymond himself dismissed the BP and Shell initiatives as PR or whether the author of the piece is paraphrasing. But if the quote is not a direct one, the FT isn't exactly putting words in Raymond's mouth because at one point the CEO is quoted as rejecting calls to invest in solar and other alternative energies by suggesting his company could "charge it off to the public affairs budget," the implication being that the public affairs budget is the most suitable repository for such phony posturing.

It's presumably no coincidence that a company with such a retarded view of PR is so consistently bad at it. Raymond's understanding of PR - which he appears to define as an approach more concerned with image than reality - is in fact a precise description of inept, self-defeating PR.

Unfortunately, Raymond isn't alone - or even in the minority - in this view. A quick Google search for the phrases "just public relations" or "public relations ploy" will throw up a ton of hits. Many journalists appear incapable of writing "public relations" without the qualifier "just."

Just so we are clear - and I know I don't need to tell you this - PR is a discipline that seeks to improve the relationship between an organization and one or more of its stakeholders (publics). So good PR can't be about cosmetics, nor can it be about projecting an image that fails to reflect reality. Relationships aren't built on images; they are built on authentic and consistent behavior.

So a "PR" approach by an oil company to climate change would involve a genuine, company-wide commitment to addressing a serious issue in a substantive way. If that's what Raymond was accusing his competitors of doing, then I owe him an apology. If not, then he owes his PR people one.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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