Exxon Writes Its Own PR Rules

Exxon Mobil Corp. wins the prize this week for least transparent major corporation. Though Exxon discovered possibly 1 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2007, the company didn't reveal the size of its find until it sued the Interior Department in a Lake Charles, La., federal court last week over leases for the oil.

According to an Aug. 19 Wall Street Journal, the only thing that surprised the oil industry more than Exxon's mammoth oil find in the Gulf of Mexico is that it kept its size quiet for so long. “Exxon is notoriously closemouthed," says the WSJ. "As spokesman Patrick McGinn put it Thursday, Exxon just doesn't ‘talk much.’"

Fadel Gheit, an analyst with Openheimer & Co., told the WSJ that an oil find of this size "is good news and shareholders want that. They deserve it." 

Judith Tenney, a member of the University of Maryland communication department and former senior analyst in the office of strategic management and planning for NASA, says Exxon is so big and so wealthy that it has established its own communications rules—and, thanks to the company’s soaring profit margins, their rules work most of the time.

“They are not open and transparent, and we consumers let them get away with it because they keep making buckets of money. We just have to wait for the next crisis to see what happens,” says Tenney, who adds that even if another Valdez disaster occurs, don’t expect any major PR changes from Exxon.

Ricochet PR CEO David Kalson says that a company of Exxon’s size and sophistication remains silent when it suits its purposes. “Not announcing the oil discovery was likely a strategic decision made at the highest levels after being very well vetted by legal, corporate communications, IR and top management,” says Kalson.

While obviously objectionable to investors, saying nothing about the find or downplaying its magnitude did buy the company time until someone else would let the cat out of the bag. Kalson says that time delay was undoubtedly calculated to be of importance to the company’s legal efforts.