Shawn Maher

Dirty 30: Exxon Goes Tone Deaf in Valdez

In honor of the 30th anniversary of when we first hung our shingle, we have been revisiting some fond memories over the past few months. However, since our founding in 1989, there have been plenty of stories of brands who have bottomed out. We explore some of our favorite stories from the past 30 years of brands dusting off the dirt and getting back on their feet in this series, the Dirty 30, a three-decade retrospective of redemption. 

First we take a trip back to the first year of G/L’s existence, 1989, which also happens to be the same year of one of the biggest crisis management snafus in history.

Exactly 30 years ago, a series of low reactions exacerbated one of the most famous man-made natural disasters in history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It all began when an intoxicated ship captain was too sloshed to keep the oil tanker from running aground, piercing his vessel’s hull and dumping oil into the ocean just off the Alaskan coastline. Exxon’s slow-moving response to the crisis only made things worse, making them seem indifferent and aloof. 

In the most successful responses to corporate disasters, brands own the fault, apologize, and outline steps they will take to rectify the situation and change the culture that allowed it to happen in the first place.

However, Exxon remained silent for days while the public saw images of wildlife dying and pristine coastlines tainted from the spill. Exxon’s CEO at the time declined to visit the site of the disaster, rather delegating low-level officials to the scene. Nobody from Exxon disseminated any information to the press, forcing reporters to visit Valdez, Alaska to obtain any information on Exxon’s efforts stem the spill, which were slow and insufficient. 

After 10 days of contradictory and misleading statements, Exxon did finally run an ad across newspapers nationwide (keep in mind, this was 30 years ago) that did nothing to address any of the public’s concerns or accept responsibility for the disaster. 

There is no easy fix for a tragedy of this magnitude, but the mishandling of the fallout from the incident only exacerbated an already terrible situation.

The thing about a brand crisis is that each one is different. While so much has changed over the past 30 years that Geile/Leon has been around, there is also so much that has remained the same. Being forthright, proactive and responsive to customers’ needs is a timeless art, but with information traveling so much more rapidly and consumers being more informed than ever, effective crisis management is now more important than ever. 

Stay tuned for the next week’s installment of the Dirty 30, Jack Comes Back to Save His Company.