When Brands Under Fire Step into the Fracas: Exxon Joins Twitter

Update: After speaking with public affairs at Exxon, it’s been confirmed that Janet is not an official spokesperson of Exxon. Alan of Exxon has given me his story here.

Brands joining twitter
It’s no coincidence that brands that are under public scrutiny from customers, competitors, and other social groups start to turn to the most vocal of all –right in the epicenter of dialog.

Twitter is, for better or worse, a global chat room where honest, often vitriolic opinions are shared. With the recent public anointing of online support effort, Comcast Cares in New York Times “Griping Online? Comcast Hears and Talks Back” –it’s easy to see why corporation communications, and PR professionals are ready to embrace the dialog.

Exxon joins the dialog, steps right into heat
Next to join the fray is Exxon Mobile, announced in their first weet as: “Janet, one of a few Community Evengilist at ExxonMobil Corp”. The responses are mixed, but some asking the tough questions as they react, test, and push Exxon to see how they’ll respond.

Immediately, Janet walks into a firestorm, publishing this rebuttal tweet over the Valdez spill: “@1WineDude, did you know that the Valdez spill wasn’t even one of the top 10 worst spills in history? Like the Nowruz Oil Field spill in ’80“, a few in the community responded with bitterness, read the search results.

You’ll also notice when you visit the Exxon Twitter account that Janet is directly and actively engaging with others, she @replies back at folks, responding to their queries, all a good practice.

Internal revolutions
Speaking with Josh Bernoff, or former colleagues Charlene Li and Peter Kim, we often hear about a group of employees that push the ‘corporate membrane’ sometimes without official sanctions, these folks tend to be customer-centric, and are willing to risk apologizing rather than asking for permission –an internal Groundswell.

While I don’t know which group is responsible for this effort at Exxon, (likely Corp Comm, backed by PR firm) it’ll be interesting to see how they handle the many criticisms in their industry. As soon as Janet releases her full name, I’ll be sure to add her to the growing list of Community Managers at enterprise corporations.

Twitter community should let Exxon get sea legs first
When Dell launched their blogging programs a few years ago, I proposed a moratorium of a few days to let them get up to speed before bashing them into the ground. Why? I was sympathetic after having launched our blogging program at Hitachi, most critics aren’t aware of the internal struggles that happen for months or years from customer-centric revolutionaries.

So, I encourage the community to let them get their operational feet grounded, and then prepare for the open dialog. By doing this, you’ll let them get running (internally and externally) then they are better prepared to handle questions, criticisms, and hopefully, eventually solve important issues. A good rule of thumb is to follow the Company-Customer- Pact which is printed out on my desk, which suggests rules of engagement for both parties.

Many questions remain:

  • Is Exxon ready to make these important changes beyond discussing it in public?
  • Is this Community Team backed from the top, and ready for the long haul?
  • Is Exxon prepared to tackle the tough topics in a public forum?
  • Is this a PR cover-up, or a genuine desire to tell their story?
  • Who is Janet?
  • Will this effort impact the bottom line, or change public perception?