25 Years Later, Lessons Learned from the Exxon Valdez
March 24, 2014
March 24, 2014
Photo via The Associated Press
It was 25 years ago today when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil in Alaska. Not only was the whole episode an environmental disaster, it also became a text book case of how NOT to communicate during a crisis.
A quarter of a century later, there are still lessons that organizations can heed today.
Lead from the Top: Someone from the top of your organization must be on scene (when appropriate) and project that they are both concerned and in charge. Exxon's chairman at the time, Lawrence Rawl, sent a string of executives to Alaska to deal with the problem instead of going there himself. From a public relations standpoint, it gave the impression that Exxon regarded the spill as not important enough to involve top management. Notice how GM CEO Mary Barra has communicated during their current recall crisis…not how BP CEO Tony Hayward remarked, “I’d like my life back” during the Gulf Oil Spill.
Make Sure You’re Heard: Sure, there wasn’t Twitter or any other Social Media platforms back in 1989, but Exxon didn’t still do enough to get the message out about how they were responding to the crisis. They held their news briefings in a remote Alaskan town, complicating the challenge of disseminating information. While there are considerably more ways to communicate in 2014, make sure your organization takes full advantage of them and reaches all of your important constituencies.
Timeliness Counts: As SM& President Ashley McCown has written, “Being thoughtful doesn’t mean you have the luxury of time.” Top Exxon executives declined to comment for almost a week after the spill, magnifying the impression of a company that was not responding urgently. And then when the Exxon did try to make good, it was too late…running an advertisement in newspapers around the country 10 days after accident.
Get your Facts Straight: At one point, an Exxon spokesperson said damage from the spill would be minimal, while independent observers said the damage was likely to be substantial. Remember: there’s no use sugarcoating a crisis. The public will likely forgive if you project compassion and competence. They don’t have much patience for a bungled response or for not getting the facts straight…when your organization is supposed to be an authority in the business in which it operates.