Real change allows PR to shine

Forbes recently named ExxonMobil its "Green Company of the Year." Yes, you read that right.

Forbes recently named ExxonMobil its “Green Company of the Year.” Yes, you read that right. The thrust behind the magazine's reasoning is the oil giant's move toward natural gas, which releases less CO2 than coal and petroleum, along with some niceties like a multimillion-dollar investment in algae farms.

Forbes' editor William Baldwin writes: “What? That old fossil of a company is an environmental savior? It will be one, if we let it.”

And what a great story this is for the communications team at Exxon. The “green” title yes, but moreover, what Exxon is doing in face of shrinking oil supplies and the benefit that has for environment (consumers, activists, CSR), and its bottom line and US energy security (investors, hawks, analysts, etc.).

The title was bequeathed just days before Exxon made headlines in a less than “green” way in having to pay $600,000 for violating a law in Colorado that protects migratory birds. But for a company once best known for a massive and destructive oil spill (Valdez), this is a defining moment, and one that its marcomms team is no doubt excited about.

As we point out in our news analysis this week, a name change does not a rebrand make. Maybe it's one of your tools, but the real work happens when the communications team is given a real story to tell – one that includes substance.

The PR industry wants desperately to be known for more than spin. But it is not an industry of magicians, and without real changes taking place at a brand or organization trying to recover from past reputation issues, the team is left with only tenuous threads to tie together.

Probably the biggest corporate makeover that has been developing over the last few years is that of Wal-Mart. It's a slow moving ship, but it is happening. There was its decision to stock only concentrated laundry detergent, the introduction of energy-efficient stores, and more recently, a partnership with the SEIU to support an employer- mandate for health insurance, and then the unveiling of a new green indexing system for the products on its shelves.

As The Wall Street Journal put it recently in its article, “Retailer's Image Moves from Demon to Darling”: “Wal-Mart went from being politically tone deaf to developing near perfect pitch, an effort that got a big boost when Mr. Scott hired longtime Democratic political operative and Edelman executive Leslie Dacha to head corporate communications.

“[CEO Lee] Scott stopped defending the company's practices and started changing them.”

PR pros can help, but only if they have a solid story behind them.

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