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?
  • 35 Replies to “When Brands Under Fire Step into the Fracas: Exxon Joins Twitter”

    1. Jeremiah, it’s encouraging to see an Exxon Mobile evangelist joining Twitter, and I agree that giving the effort a few days’ grace period before offering a critique isn’t a bad suggestion.

      However, I just don’t know that that’s realistic, given the quick-to-react nature of the social media community. Throw in a Twitter post from Janet that says that “the Valdez spill wasn’t even one of the top 10 worst spills in history,” and people are bound to get vocally passionate in a hurry.

    2. In the overall scheme of things and compared to other media, Twitter is not very important to Exxon Mobil and it is unlikely that Twitter conversations will get anywhere near the boardroom. Also, Twitterers tend to be media literate, so it is equally unlikely that the company’s arguments (such as the one quoted by Bryan Person above) will hold any sway in this forum. Good luck.

    3. >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.

      Amen to that. People often don’t realize that being customer-centric isn’t a matter of just wanting to be so – although that’s important. You also have to be prepared as an organization to respond. I always say: don’t ask questions with your technology that you aren’t prepared to answer with your business processes.:)

      At the same time, sometimes change happens in companies only because someone like Janet steps out and demonstrates how unprepared the company is. Sometimes creating pain is the only way to get an organization moving. I don’t recommend it – I want our customers to be as prepared as they can be, and there’s no reason today that you need to fail before you can succeed. But I don’t fight it either, when internal constraints mean a company has to do things wrong before they can do things right. The important thing is to understand the risks, avoid the avoidable catastrophes, and keep moving ahead in the direction that all companies need to go.

    4. Hi Jeremiah,

      I think you are right about the fact that Exxon should get sea legs first. But my main critique (in Dutch) is that it’s not so hard to imagine (and to find out) that social media is about conversation and not communication and broadcasting. Read the Joseph Jaffe’s and Larry Weber’s of this world… But her second and eleventh tweet are direct links to corporate reports. I find that obtrusive (like walking in a bar and offering your flyer’s to every guest).

      I think Exxon could have prevented a lot of (negative) buzz by weighing their tweets a little more (exxon valdez) and by being a little more reserved at start.

    5. Thanks Joe.

      Martin, Exxon should be as bold –or as reserved –as they are prepared to take on. I think they are putting more of the human front on rather than corporate reports. It’s expected that Janet sway just a bit from the corporate line.

    6. I don’t think Exxon’s foray into social media will do it any good. The recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Exxon Valdez spill is heart-breaking. Exxon dragged the case out for 20 years knowing that the small towns affected by the spill couldn’t afford to match them legally. This kind of behavior (including Janet’s cold comment about the spill) is unacceptable. A well intentioned twitter account isn’t going to change that.

    7. Bukola

      While yes, there are certainly bigger issues here, but doesn’t it matter that brands want to talk to you about it?

      Here’s your chance to influence them.

    8. I have been impressed so far with @GMBlogs twitter. I challenged him & he did a great job of saying they are not perfect, but that they are trying. Where Exxon will have trouble is that we are hit every block ($4 gas) with visuals of oil mongers laughing all the way to the bank. My trust & opinion of oil companies is just as smothered & tainted in that same oil those poor birds had all over them. That visual is burned into my brain. I will listen & not “soapbox”…yet.

    9. Kudos to Janet for trying to join in the twitter conversation.

      I agree with Joe Cothrel (@cothrel) that it is a long process to get approval to move forward with a social media response initiative in the corp environment. I live in the Fortune 500 world, believe me socmed response is the toughest sell I’ve been involved in for the 14 years I’ve been in online marketing. So I can understand why Jeremiah is asking us to give Exxon a little room to get used to the environment.

      Here’s where I’m hoping Janet will listen to @jowyang and the conversation here: Janet, people want to talk with a person on Twitter (in any socnet app for that matter) we really don’t have any interest in having a shouting match with “the man.” Well, at least most of us don’t have any interest. Anyway, I suggest following the Zappos or Dell “response through individual conversation” model:

      1) Twitter handle = companyname_yourname or yourname@companyname. Seriously, ExxonMobilCorp screams corporate speak, shouting out, “I am the Eggman”, watching your every post kinda handle.

      2) Nada corp speak, keep it personal and helpful.

      3) Acknowledge the person’s POV that you’re responding to, we all what to be part of the conversation not shouted at.

      4) Before you follow people, as a corp representative @ tweeters first, to let them know why you are following them so you don’t shoot yourself in the foot with the “big brother” issue.

      5) Consider responding with your email address in your @s or DMs to take the conversation offline and show tweeters you are an individual wanting to help.

      Best of luck, Janet!

      Hat tip to @BarbaraKB for pointing out @jowyang’s post to me. Another example of how we all are in this together.

    10. Zena thanks

      I really love your points, esp 2, 3, and 5. Solid recommendations

      I’m not sure I understand number 4. Twitter is mostly a public tool, you don’t have to announce you’re following someone. (I’m following 5000)

      Even if you’re not following them, it’s easy to use the search tools to find out who’s saying what, in other words, it doesn’t really matter.

    11. I’m sure ExxonMobil gave Janet and this initiative a lot of due diligence. The oil industry has historically been behind a lot of philanthropic media such as PBS in an effort to be a thought leader.

      Lots of people automatically jump to conclusions about the oil industry — how rapacious they are; their insensitivity to the environment — and don’t really know what influences the price of oil nor the current best practices in conservation.

      I’m hoping that Janet will find success in social media and manage to put a more human face on the situation. T. Boone Pickens is not the only oil man who sees the big picture and the importance of doing something practical about it.

      (When I say practical, I mean having a real conversation about what drives trade-offs instead of pointing fingers. For example, the Kyoto Protocols didn’t bring rapidly developing countries into account http://is.gd/17Du; and the interest in global warming obscures the real medium-term challenge of sufficient potable water.)

      I hope all of us can put down our preconceived notions and be open to new, provable concepts. I hope Janet can get us closer to the day when we can rationally discuss tradeoffs between our petroleum-driven lifestyle and the environmental reality.

    12. Does anyone really think that ExxonMobile is going to get or offer any great insights via Twitter? Yes, it’s good they’re getting involved. Yes, Janet has got to be a special kind of person for taking that job. It seems like the job description should be, “Wanted: Pinata. Good pay, stock options, etc. Must tolerate diverse opinions and be able to accept pure hate coming from variety of sources. MBA not required. Former boxers who can take a hit, get back up and type fast though, very welcome.”

      Generally, I’m personally usually a big proponent of such things and optimistic about opportunities. But some things are just a bit beyond silly. Anyone think a Twitter Storm sent to Janet to say, “Hey, ya’ll should really be thinkin’ solar” is going to move the C-Suite direction?

      C’mon. Really now. There may be a bunch of companies that can truly benefit from such engagement. But a major oil company? I’ll be paying minor attention to this just kind of as an interesting Public Relations case to look at. But other than that, I’m not seeing a ton of value here. And I’m not saying any of this from either a “let’s get green” OR “we need to drill more” perspective. Just saying for some stuff, this particular venue isn’t going to matter much.

      I’m sorry if I’m being a Twitter Pooper here. But with all due respect to Brian’s point about “closer to the day when we can rationally discuss tradeoffs between our petroleum-driven lifestyle and the environmental reality,” I’m not sure those conversations are 140 characters at a time. In fact, I’m all but fully convinced they’re not.


    13. If Exxon really cares, why didn’t they use GetSatisfaction? I checked and they’re not there! This IMHO is just another toothless PR stunt to distract people. Same BS “we care about what people think”

      I wish Janet all the best. She’s going to end up being the old school fall person. I wonder if there’s a lawyer sitting beside her as she typing! How long will she last. Maybe her replacement just take over her persona.

      Anyway, this will help her build her social cred 😉

    14. @Jeremiah: I appreciate Janet stepping into the fire and joining the conversation. But I don’t think talking down to consumers (re: her comment about the Exxon Valdez oil spill) or pointing people to boring corporate reports is going to be effective. I’ll take a step back and see where this goes. But this raises an important question that Scott Germaise touched on: Is Social Media for every company? And will Exxon take the feedback they receive to heart? I doubt it. The issues surrounding the oil spill are completely relevant because it shows us that Exxon will do whatever it takes to maintain a profit. We often assume that companies are entering this space for good reasons or well-intentioned reasons. I hope we are not proven wrong in this case.

    15. Hey Jeremiah,

      Another brand that isn’t shying from the fracas and has joined Twitter is Motorola. With everything they have happening, they’ve opened a dialog channel with consumers. Granted, it is a promotional channel with @MotoDeals, but they aren’t leaning away from criticism. In fact, they welcome the dialog in addition to seeking new customers.

      Thanks for all your insight it is great.


    16. Jeremiah-

      I’m willing to wait and see rather than dismiss in this case because I’m curious about what’s really happening behind the scenes.

      However, I think it’s highly unlikely that a company that’s making approx. $1,500 per second is really taking the time for a top level executive to listen to consumers.

      I’d love to be wrong. I’m guessing a PR company is running things behind the scenes to try out something they saw on ABC, which makes it a “valid” channel for public relations.

    17. Jeremiah,

      Those are some good questions. I just wrote a post about the political approach model vs. the customer service model. I’ll be sure to include a link to this post.

      With regard to your questions about whether or not they’re ready to make changes, I believe Exxon is taking a political approach. That means they have a position (principled or otherwise) and they are sticking to it. They will use forms of rhetoric more suited to a political campaign than a customer outreach initiative.

      In all, it’s clear they didn’t create a Twitter account to change the way they do business. Their way of making money (in oil) has become vilified over time, but I don’t see it legitimately changing any time soon because, as we can see, they’re making money and lots of it.

      Still, I’m excited to see what comes of this.


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