'No comment' is no solution

Feb. 28, 2005
In his Feb. 15 keynote address at Cambridge Energy Research Associates¿ annual energy executive conference in Houston, ChevronTexaco Corp.

In his Feb. 15 keynote address at Cambridge Energy Research Associates’ annual energy executive conference in Houston, ChevronTexaco Corp. CEO David J. O’Reilly reminisced about a meeting last year with six former CEOs of Chevron Corp. and Texaco Inc., representing 55 years of collective corporate leadership.

Naturally, the group discussed changes they’d witnessed-new technology, operating efficiencies, and new emphasis on environmental stewardship, corporate governance, and business transparency. One, said O’Reilly, “remembered more than somewhat fondly, ‘If a reporter called, you could say “no comment” and hang up on him-and get away with it.’”

Of course, that got a laugh from the hundreds of industry representatives in the audience. Later in his speech, O’Reilly called for industry members to educate Americans that energy is as essential to their quality of life as national security, or education, or healthcare. In the question-and-answer period following that speech, one of the written questions submitted from a reporter in the audience-but not passed on by the monitor to O’Reilly-was whether so much education of the American public would be necessary now if energy executives had spent more time talking with reporters in the past instead of hanging up on them. A terse “no comment” never made a news event go away; it only abdicated the company’s chance to tell its side. Industry opponents are eager to present their viewpoints to the press in order to win over the public.

Missed chances

Some oil companies have passed up chances to educate the public even when the press was on industry’s side. Like back in President Jimmy Carter’s administration when the government was convinced the US was running out of natural gas, and a New England congressman learned Texaco was using some gas from its Tiger Shoals gas field in the Gulf of Mexico to operate its Port Arthur, Tex., refinery.

The congressman called a press conference to complain that the Texaco refinery was burning enough natural gas to heat some 1,000 New England homes that winter. Never mind that the refinery was producing heating oil for even more homes in that same market, plus gasoline, motor oil, jet fuel, and other products. It was a prime example of the opposition’s ignorance, and this reporter immediately telephoned Texaco for a response.

The response came some days later. “No,” said the Texaco spokesman, “we don’t want to fight this out in public. We’d rather settle it quietly behind the scenes.” On another occasion, Texaco’s company magazine reported that workers had delayed expansion of a gas treatment plant because a mama bird-not even an endangered species-was nesting in the construction area. Work was delayed until the eggs were hatched and the fledglings left the nest. Yet Texaco refused a newspaper’s request for a photo and interview, saying it didn’t want to set precedence for delaying work for every nesting bird that might come along.

Texaco was so reticent that, when it hired some of the first female geologists and engineers for field work in South Texas, it refused requests for interviews about its expansion of women’s roles in the industry. Seems Texaco executives couldn’t get past “no comment” even when they had plenty to brag about.

Others excel

Fortunately, other companies were better at dealing with the media. Shell Oil Co. demonstrated its prowess at a press conference back when oil companies were being blasted for “obscene profits” after finally having one pretty good year of commodity prices after a long string of sharply reduced earnings and even losses. Daily on the evening news, the major television networks reported record high profits by then-Exxon Corp., Chevron, Texaco, and other major companies as gasoline prices soared at the pumps.

But as television crews crowded into Shell’s meeting, Shell representatives handed out canisters of videotape. And when Shell Oil’s president reported large profits, he immediately turned to a 5-ft tall model of the Bullwinkle offshore platform and declared, “Here’s what we spent it on.”

The film that Shell handed out to TV crews was of the installation months earlier of Bullwinkle, the world’s tallest conventional offshore platform, in the Gulf of Mexico. That evening one could flip across the major TV networks and see Bullwinkle’s jacket sliding off its transport barge and into gulf waters. There was no mention of obscene profits. Shell taught the American public that it had spent billions to provide more oil.