Exxon Corp., already getting low marks for navigational skills in Alaskan waters and oil spill cleanup coordination, now is being found wanting in the public relations management of the Prince William Sound disaster.
"I'd give them a C-minus, which is below average," said Carole Gorney, 46, an associate professor at Lehigh University, Bethleham, Pa., and a consultant in the burgeoning field of crisis communications. "And I'm an easy grader.""It seems to me that there was not a very good crisis plan, and even worse implementation," said Douglas Ann Newsom, 55, a communications professor at Texas Christian University and another authority on disaster PR.
What makes the company's poor performance all the more glaring is that there have been recent examples of American corporations that have handled major crises deftly, they said.
Both cited the quick and effective approach taken by Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol-cyanide poisoning scare several years ago.
Moreover, national public relations firms, such as Ketchum and Burson-Marsteller, have crisis communications specialists who can materialize at a moment's notice.
Exxon, the nation's largest oil company, said it relied on no outside consultant.
"We're handling it ourselves," said spokesman Jack Holleran at the oil company's Houston offices.
He declined to describe the firm's approach or even to say how many news releases it has issued. One, dated April 13 and generally overlooked by the media, detailed how sea otters were caught, cleaned of oil, then fed fresh crab and shrimp.
But the message received by the public was one of too little, too late.
"There is a perception that once there is a mess, you go to the public relations people and say, `Make us look good,' " said TCU's Newsom. "But public relations needs to be called in before you have a problem - in planning for a potential problem, and we don't live in a perfect world."
In the first television reports, "an Exxon official at the spill site said all the right things - `We are responsible. We're going to do everything we can to clean up the environment.' Then we never saw him again," said Newsom.
"It was almost a week before the president (William Stevens) got up there. He began to appear on television, and he really was not an effective speaker," Newsom said. "By this time, so much had happened that whatever he said was going to be criticized." Marc Grossman, 33, a Burson-Marsteller vice president and a crisis communications specialist, argued that Exxon may be in a no-win situation.
"A big corporation almost always comes out on the short end when on the other side is an Alaskan fishermen or poor people in India," said Grossman.