When we first started working with clients decades ago, it was common for a company to ignore the media in the initial stages of a crisis. And when the company finally responded to the media, the results were often unsatisfactory and did more damage to the firm’s reputation. Let’s examine a classic case of a disastrous media interview From the Archives.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef in Prince William Sound, spewing millions of gallons of oil along the Alaskan coastline. The massive leak killed an estimated 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 otters, and left the fishing industry decimated. Exxon was slow to begin the clean-up and its Chairman and CEO Lawrence Rawl even slower to address the media. It took Rawl nearly a week to comment publicly on the spill and longer to do television interviews. And when Rawl appeared on CBS Morning News, he was shockingly uniformed and seemingly incurious about a clean-up plan Exxon had released. As you will see in the following clip, Rawl’s appearance hurt, rather than helped, Exxon’s reputation:
There are multiple lessons to be learned from Rawl’s interview. First, if you are unfamiliar with the topic, don’t do an interview until you have done your homework and are prepared to answer basic questions. No one would have expected Rawl to know every tiny detail in the clean-up plan. But surely he should have been able to answer the initial question by giving a basic overview of the plan.
Secondly, it’s never a good idea to appear condescending and impatient during an interview. Rawl failed on both counts.
Finally, any time you talk to the media during a crisis, your foremost priority is to put a caring and compassionate face on your company. It’s the first step toward recovering your reputation and regaining the trust of your community. In this interview, Rawl didn’t take that step and sidetracked Exxon’s efforts to clean-up its reputation and standing with the American public.