Calvin Coolidge famously said, “you can’t improve upon silence.” Chevron Corporation should have heeded that advice. The company made one of the worst apologies ever to residents of Dunkard Township, a rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania after one of the company’s wells exploded with an intense and horrific fire raging for five days afterwards with one well worker dead. Chevron’s apology was a letter with a free coupon for free pizza and a 2-liter soda. But residents needed to act on the coupon by May 1, 2014. The so-called apology has gone viral with outrage pouring out on social media.
Oil companies even under the best of circumstances have a negative public perception. They are the favorite targets of consumers and politicians alike. They make large profits (in Chevron’s case $21 billion) and never appear to lower the price of gas at the pumps. So when a tragedy such as the explosion at Dunkard Township occurs, a crisis communications strategy is difficult and tricky. Yet in Chevron’s apology, they reinforced every negative image that the public has and worst, double downed when the criticism began. When the story of the free pizza began going viral, rather than admitting perhaps the free pizza gambit was in poor taste or was not being construed the way it was intended, the company began criticizing residents who felt offended and claimed all the feedback they were receiving was positive. Beyond that, Chevron clamped down on their social media censoring any criticism that was posted. The end result is Chevron looks both heartless and ridiculous with their crisis communications response and the brand has taken a hit on social media and consumer trust. The longer they dig in their heels the worst the outcry will be.
What should Chevron have done?
- Send senior executives to be onsite during the crisis to show their concern and put a human face to the company. People expect corporations to have a public face, hiding behind press releases during a crisis diminishes the human element.
- Issue a strong heartfelt apology.
- Explain by holding a town hall meeting in Dunkard Township and through paid newspaper ads, the rigorous safety precautions they follow in their wells and what steps they are taking to ensure that such tragedies don’t happen again.
- Put meaning to their Facebook banner that says “oil companies should support the communities they’re part of. We agree”, by putting money into local events in Dunkard Township and establishing a scholarship in the name of the deceased well worker for high school students.
- Use their social media to convey their message and allow consumers to vent.
The best thing that Chevron could do at this moment is admit that the free pizza and soda came across in poor taste, and explain their commitment to Dunkard Township and all communities they are involved in. They then should hold meetings in the community to explain what happened, apologize, and show the steps they are taking to correct the situation. If they are unwilling to do that and stick to the free pizza strategy, perhaps make it a lifetime supply of free pizza for the town (of course this last is said in jest but shows how Chevron is having the worst of both worlds – a horrendous crisis communications strategy that is causing brand damage and distrust; as well as becoming a ridiculous punch line).
The biggest mistake brands and corporations make during a crisis is their response to the crisis. Often it is because they have no basic crisis communication strategy in place and are caught scrambling with the story not being the crisis so much as the flawed crisis response. The end result is a loss of confidence and loyalty in the brand that often takes years to rebuild. Companies should look at Chevron on what not to do in a crisis.