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Grading ExxonMobile’s PR Gambit

I don’t own a car, but historically high oil prices are taking their toll on me.

My airfare for a recent trip was 25 percent higher than I normally pay, and taxis to and from the airport cost me at least 20 percent more than I’ve paid in the past. High oil prices also impact my life because petroleum derivatives are used in thousands of products, including food (plastic containers and pesticides), beverages (plastic and glass bottles), clothing (polyester and rayon), consumer electronics (plastic), home furnishings (carpet) and utilities (gas-powered plants). Even the government is feeling the pinch (which means my tax dollars are wasting away), because petroleum is central to everything from government-owned transportation to government-sponsored works projects. (Asphalt is a petroleum product, and asphalt prices are up about 20 percent over the past year).

We are all, unfortunately, slaves to oil, and as such, we each have a vested interest in oil prices. That is why an interview with Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s president and chief executive officer, conducted by “Today Show” host Matt Lauer, was so important. Tillerson was speaking directly to the American public, an oddity for the CEO of any company, and he was doing so in an unusual forum — not on CNBC, or via videotape on “60 Minutes,” but to a live audience of everyday Americans.

In analyzing Tillerson’s interview, I want to be careful and acknowledge the fact that oil business is extremely complicated and much of what makes its way into the mainstream, consumer media does not begin to even touch on the intricacies of the business. With that said, one of Tillerson’s jobs is to explain to Joe Consumer how and why the business is complicated.

As always, my hope is that we can learn something from watching someone else either succeed or fail.

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Appearance: Tillerson opted for a dark suit (black or dark blue), white shirt and colorful tie. The suit expressed power, but the tie suggested a lighter, more human side. Tillerson was clean-shaven, his gray hair was closely cropped and make-up appeared light, giving him a natural look. He looked well-rested, which is important considering that “The Today Show” airs first thing in the morning.

Grade: A+

Tillerson looked the role of a CEO, but he didn’t come off looking like a caricature.

Posture: Not surprisingly, Tillerson was seated on a stool with a back. This is a television tactic used for one-on-one interview, as the stool pitches the person slightly forward, toward the interviewer creating a greater sense of intimacy. The stool also keeps the subject “on his toes,” not allowing him to get too comfortable. Tillerson sat upright, facing the camera more than Lauer, and slightly swiveling his head towards the interviewer. He sat with his hands in his lap and while he appeared generally comfortable, there was a air of stiffness.

Grade: B

Tillerson should have shifted his body to face Lauer more directly, though his posture did keep the interview from becoming too confrontational and physically intense.

Mannerisms: Tillerson expressed little emotion, though he did smile on occasion, nod in agreement and use head motions to express emotions. He did use his hands to make any gestures, which considering how he was seated, may have been for the best.

Grade: B+

Overall, Tillerson kept any emotions boiling in check and his stolid mannerisms helped keep the interview on track.

Speech: Tillerson spoke in a mostly monotone voice, which while it contrasted nicely with Lauer’s sometimes expressive question-asking, left me feeling like he was going through the motions.

Grade: C

While I certainly didn’t expect Tillerson to be bombastic, a little emotion in his voice would have put me at ease. Instead, Tillerson sounded like he was on a corporate conference call, which did not suit this particular venue.

Emotion: This is an emotional topic because, as I noted in my intro, we’re all affected by high oil prices. Tillerson showed virtually no emotion and though he wasn’t robotic, I can’t imagine anyone saying to themselves, “This guy understands.”

Grade: D

Tillerson isn’t going to get invited to many dinner parties that aren’t business related. He came off as ambivalent, at best, and at worst.

Vocabulary: Tillerson had some poor word choices, using terms such as “upstream” and “integrated oil company” without much explanation. Upstream companies actually go out and drill for and produce oil; integrated companies are involved in the upstream, midstream (transportation, storage, etc.) and downstream (refining, retailing, etc.) processes.

Grade: D

Oil industry analysts got every word Tillerson said; consumers didn’t.

Preparation: Tillerson answered every question quickly and without hesitation. He did not fumble words or have to search for ideas. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, regardless of the question.

Grade: A+

The CEO was obviously ready for anything that was going to be thrown at him.

Directness: Tillerson pulled no punches, and made no apologies for looking out for shareholders first and foremost. While this type of behavior is key on Wall Street, it does not fly on Main Street. This was not an annual meeting, but Tillerson treated it like one.

Grade: C

Tillerson simply did not understand the audience, thus his directness came off more as boorishness.

Retorts: Tillerson answered all of Lauer’s questions directly, so there wasn’t much room to retort. However, for the last question of the interview, Lauer asked Tillerson if ExxonMobil would, in effect, lower gas prices over the summer to help American consumers. Tillerson responded by telling Lauer (and I paraphrase), “You said earlier that I work for my shareholders, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.” Touche.

Grade: A

The opportunity did not present itself much, but Tillerson threw Lauer’s own words back in his face when the time was right.

Lucidity: The CEO sounded knowledgeable, but he couldn’t quite find the right words or phrasing to get points across in an easily understandable manner. The purpose of the interview was to educate the American public as to why oil prices are so high, and why companies such as ExxonMobil shouldn’t be damned.

Grade: D

Tillerson failed to make the above point eloquently, and in doing so, he simply came off as spokesperson for a company that cares only about its shareholders.

Messaging: Lauer concentrated on ExxonMobil’s record profits, while Tillerson patiently tried to explain how and why his company makes such a big profit. His best point was in saying that less than ten years ago, oil was under $10 per barrel, suggesting the cyclical nature of the business. Tillerson, however, did not illuminate this point further; instead he merely said that ExxonMobil will have some good years, and some bad years. What he should have said is that when ExxonMobil has its good year, it takes its profits and invests in new exploration and refining capacity, ensuring that supply can meet demand.

Grade: C

Tillerson got his message across; it just wasn’t a consumer-friendly one. Again, he wasn’t speaking to shareholders, but to consumers.

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Intangibles: NBC extended invitations to the head of all of the major oil companies and only ExxonMobil agreed to come on. That alone warrants some bonus points and I think it at least suggests that the company understands that it has a responsibility to address certain issues in the public sphere.
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Overall Grade: C

Tillerson had a golden opportunity to address one of the most important economic issues of our time, and he fell flat this time. (There will most likely be other chances.) While Tillerson came off professionally, he did not come off very human, or understanding. He seemed nonplussed about how prices are impacting the average American, and he did not seem very concerned that Americans view his company venomously. He made some good points – such as the fact that ExxonMobil has 2 million American shareholders, not to mention that hundreds or thousands of pension funds (teachers, state workers, etc.), are invested in the company and that as ExxonMobil’s profits rise, the company pays more taxes – but he failed to address important issues in a simple manner.

For example, Tillerson should have noted that while ExxonMobil’s profit has grown to historic highs, its actual profit growth rate is much lower than the vast majority of other growing public companies. (In the most recent quarter, Microsoft’s profits grew 16 percent, Starbucks’ profits rose 27 percent, and Boeing’s profits increased 29 percent). He also did not mention how much money it costs for oil companies to actually operate; i.e., the more money ExxonMobil spends, the more money it’s going to make, or how environmental issues are keeping refining capacity constrained to an extent. (Everyone complains about less refining, but no one wants a refinery built near them.)

I give Tillerson and ExxonMobil credit for going on the “Today Show,” but I feel like they missed out on a special chance to speak directly to the American public. The interview was not a disaster, but it accomplished little, and the company’s image did not soften as a result. Consumers, meanwhile, learned nothing new, and gas prices, of course, still remain high.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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