9 July — UPDATE — I’ve just been invited to turn this into an op-ed piece for the next issue of IABC’s CW Bulletin. Your comments will help improve the final version!
Two weeks ago, while floating around Amsterdam on a sightseeing tour during the Orange Business Live 2010 conference*, I had the opportunity to ask the CIO of a major oil corporation (not BP) a question that has been bothering me for a while: “Why haven’t the other oil companies offered more help during the clean-up efforts related to the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico?”
The ensuing conversation was quite interesting. The first part of his response related to the technical support that has been offered. When I probed why teams of company volunteers had not been sent out to help clean up beaches, something that would be visible to the general public, he surmised that there is a fear of being perceived to take advantage of BP’s misfortunes in order to improve their own image. That seemed fair enough, although I suspect it might be more accurate to say that they wanted to avoid the public associating their companies with BP n its dark hour. Regardless of the real motivation, I do not think it’s a well thought out strategy.
First, let’s look at the technical help. I have to admit that I did not know about this, and I told my interlocutor that the technical assistance is virtually invisible to the public. I decided to look at the websites of some of the oil majors and see what I could find. This list is not exhaustive and the review not scientific, but I think it is pretty indicative.
On 30 April, ExxonMobil issued a brief statement about their provision of “assistance in the form of personnel and equipment to support efforts in the Gulf of Mexico”. If any additional details or updates are available on their website, they do not contain keywords you would expect to turn them up (e.g. Mexico spill assistance”).
On 8 June, Shell issued a brief, but fairly detailed, list of all the assistance the company had provided up to that date. It’s 100% technical. Of all the websites visited, this bulletin was the easiest to find.
The only references I can find on the ConocoPhillips site appear to be in answer to questions at investor meetings. I say “appear”, because when I click on the link returned by the site’s internal search engine, it returns a “401 unauthorized” error. So the company can’t even be bothered to tell the public what they are or aren’t doing to help.
Based on the remarks of Chevron‘s new Chairman and CEO at the 2010 Annual Stockholders Meeting and in testimony to Congress, that company has provided some technical assistance. There is an oblique reference in the Congressional testimony to “working with communities and organizations across the Gulf region”, but no indication of the nature of that cooperation.
How could the oil companies have reacted more intelligently to the Deepwater Horizon accident?
- In the first days, the other oil companies could have offered personnel to BP to strengthen community relations, both to expedite claims filing and to help local communities understand the technical aspects of the clean-up operations. You cold argue that the other companies would have risked being tarred with the same brush as BP, but have they avoided that fate by not offering the goodwill gesture?
- A volunteer corps of oil company employees could be created to help with on-the-ground beach clean-up. This would have be an opportunity for non-technical personnel to get involved and to put a human face on the industry. In order to avoid a perception that other companies are trying to get good PR at the expense of BP, this could be organized under the umbrella of a trade association or other common platform.
- An oil industry initiative could be put in place to offer advice, mentoring, zero-interest loans and other business support to the fishing community and other small, local businesses adversely affected by the oil spill.
What are your ideas?
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Thanks to my Prospero colleague Sarah Verplancken for her suggested response (#3).
*Disclosure: Orange Business Services covered travel, accommodation and incidentals for myself and the other team bloggers attending Orange Business Live 2010.