ExxonMobil is an oil manufacturing company long suspected of engaging in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” activities that are widely suspected as contributing to the pollution of underground water supplies in many communities. A group from our local community formed two years ago to act as a kind of unofficial watchdog committee, comprised of concerned citizens from various walks of life and professional backgrounds. Periodic checks of the local water supply have failed to prove that the local water is unsafe, with levels of pollutants found to be well within accepted parameters as established by state government agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency. However, over the past six months, several people have begun to exhibit symptoms that could be attributed to the presence of heavy metals in local well water supplies. ExxonMobil’s local waste disposal and storage practices have been certified by an industry oversight group that monitors compliance issues yet, perception being reality (Levine, 1994), the population has expressed deep concern over the situation, unhappiness with our presence in the area and a new willingness to listen to the charges that have been made against us for years by the ad hoc watchdog group.
While the company has not been found complicit in this activity, the situation is reminiscent of other, highly publicized examples of fracking causing subterranean pollution. ExxonMobil has reached a point where inactivity can only result in a damaging situation and possible legal action from the community. Consequently, it has been decided to launch a public relations initiative aimed at improving the company’s image.
1. The company regards this situation as untenable and a serious threat to its image, business relationships and to long-term profitability. As a result, the company’s aim is to clearly separate itself from the environmental developments that have given local critics traction in the media and the community at large. This is considered priority number one, without which subsequent public relations activities could not be mounted with any credibility.
2. The company’s hydraulic fracturing activities in the area of the contaminated well water offers an opportunity to shed a negative image. ExxonMobil’s objective is not to try and deflect attention but to use the situation to create a positive image in the local community, one that raises the company’s environmental image. Ultimately, ExxonMobil wants to be regarded as a proactive and environmentally-conscientious corporate citizen by its neighbors. This can best be accomplished through a well-conceived and vigorous public relations initiative.
3. The public relations program must also position the company not just as environmentally responsible but as something more than that – it wants to be known as active stewards of the environment, as preservers of the community and as people equally concerned as the public about the state of the environment. ExxonMobil expects that it will emerge from this community relations initiative as a company known for its support of environmental sustainability, recycling and as integral to ongoing efforts to both monitor the activities of other companies but to encourage them to partner with us, to become active in the endeavor to achieve corporate social responsibility (Jacques, 2010).
Local government officials – Elected officials in city and county governments have been the target of a long and concerted effort by critics to poison the company’s reputation. It has been their intention over the years to encourage government officials to think of us as an irresponsible and uncaring corporate polluter. In order to counteract this negative image, we must communicate directly with these decision-makers to head off potential action at the legislative level, where negative public relations has the potential to most directly affect us as a company.
Media – The local media offers the most effective means of disseminating the message that the company is fully engaged in protecting the environment. An active and scrupulously honest approach to activities that could in any respect possibly impact the environment will be taken with local television, radio and print outlets. Social media will be an important part of this outreach.
Community-at-large – Ultimately, it is the greater community that must be addressed, face-to-face, if it is to be successful at co-opting critics and at convincing people of its integrity. To that end, this will be a grass roots effort that literally addresses people where they live. It is understood and accepted that we have been too slow to seek a forward relationship with the people who live near company operations. In particular, we missed the opportunity to head off the threatening scenario that we now face by having been neutral on the environment. It is our responsibility to see that this situation is altered.
1. Generate positive buzz – As previously mentioned, the community is the lynchpin of our target audiences and social media will be a key component of our public relations efforts to communicate directly with them (Brown, 99). Social media outlets will allow us to be detailed enough to distinguish ourselves from a false perception about our activities, and communicate directly with key audiences in a way not available through other means. A viral approach to image-building can best be delivered through a channel that allows the immediacy and the ability to communicate credibly, in real time.
2. Give back to the community – In the interest of showing that the company is serious about stewarding the environment, we will donate funding for the establishment of wetlands and wetlands plant life that can act as filters for pollutants, such as the heavy metals that our critics have accused us of releasing. This is our means of convincing government leaders and the community that our company has the community’s long-term interests at heart.
3. Media partnership – Convincing the media of our integrity will be important as well. They will have access to our facilities and be given the ability to see firsthand the manner in which our company disposes of, and stores, its waste material. This will be part of a comprehensive effort that establishes a two-way street of communication between ourselves and the media. Our goal is to leverage this relationship to improve our relationships with local government officials, opinion leaders and the general community.
1. Press conference/announcement – A press conference will be held to announce that the company is donating a significant dollar amount toward making environmental improvements throughout the community. Central to this contribution are plans to create new wetlands, which act as a filter that removes pollutants from water runoff. This will have the dual effect of beautifying the landscape and protecting the environment.
2. On-site visits – In order to “co-opt critics,” we will invite government leaders, civic activists and the media to tour the local manufacturing facility. We want them to see that everything we do regarding subterranean mining activities is fully within government regulations and industry standards, and that the company observes every health and safety precaution. Footage of underground activities will be shown on social media outlets so that the community-at-large can also see the results.
3. Editorial board meetings – Meetings will be set with the editorial leadership of local media outlets. Company officials to meet with editors and reporters and answer questions about recent events, company policies, and practices and processes during underground operations.
4. Social media outreach – Social media will be used as an ongoing channel of communication with the community. This will be an important component in outreach efforts, since it is the company’s stated intention to seek a permanent response to this situation, rather than a quick fix. Social media offers the flexibility to provide updates on events and to respond to challenges in a timely fashion. It will also allow us to “bring” people into our facility in a virtual sense and forge a closer relationship with people who may remain skeptical.
5. Event sponsorship – In the interest of proving the company’s commitment to the local environment, ExxonMobil will sponsor a beautification event in which company employees will lead volunteers from the community in cleaning the local parks and other highly trafficked areas. The media will be invited to attend/participate what is designed to be a yearly event.
Generate buzz - ongoing
Communicate directly with the community through social media outlets (Youtube, Facebook etc.) with footage, photos and Podcasts that review both the company’s history and how our industry traditionally interacts with the environment.
Company making a major donation to enhancing the environment; creation of new wetlands aimed at helping to protect local water supplies; question and answer period regarding the efficiency of wetlands plants and the importance to the environment of maintaining such resources.
Invite local government officials, members of the media and civic leaders to tour the company’s physical facility; demonstrate how we manage waste products responsibly without polluting; exhibit how we differ from the oil company.
Editorial board meetings
Set meetings with local editors/boards at media outlets; put company officials in front of the media so that they can address directly questions about the company’s activities and environmental protection commitment.
Sponsorship of an annual beautification event that involves the community in cleaning area parks and other highly trafficked areas; involve the media and post on various social media outlets.
Tracking – ongoing
Monitor media coverage for both quantity and content; monitor web-site “hits” to develop an idea of the level of community interest in our message.
Tracking the results of outreach efforts will help in gaining a better understanding of the effectiveness of the company’s message, and whether or not (and where) ExxonMobil needs to change/tweak its overall message and/or tactics. This evaluation will be done in several ways:
1. Media coverage tracking and analysis – A corporate service will be engaged to track both the quality and content of the media coverage that outreach efforts will generate. There are several commercial, automated software programs that can be used to monitor coverage and analyze story content to develop an overall picture of our success. We will select one that provides the most comprehensive overview (including daily updates, diagrams and charts) of public relations activities.
2. Web site monitoring – Another accurate means of tracking the company’s public relations program is to monitor visits to the company Web site. This will give an idea of how thoroughly our message is saturating the local community, and what kind of impact it is having on public opinion. This will be part of a more dynamic and interactive company web site, which will be redesigned and serve as a portal between ExxonMobil and the community in general. The site will house compliance documentation information as well as updates on any physical modifications that are made within the plant area itself. This will create a level of transparency between the company and the public and make it easier to determine how well public relations tactics are being received.
3. Social media traffic – Similarly, promotional success can be assessed by monitoring how much web traffic social media postings are generating. If, for instance, it proves that there are only a moderate number of hits on Facebook, or You Tube, it would dictate that tactics be directed toward some other more promising venue. Once all relevant tracking information has been gathered, company officers and public relations personnel will meet to determine the course of future initiatives.
Brown, Rob. Public Relations and the Social Web. Philadelphia: Kogan Page Publishing, 2009.
Jacques, Amy. “Socially Conscious: Companies Share CSR Best Practices.” Public Relations
Society of America. 1 July 201.
Levine, Michael M. Guerilla P.R. New York: Collins, 1994.