ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil and gas company, came under fire recently for accusing Columbia University journalists of biased and unethical reporting. The journalists’ investigative report, published by the Los Angeles Times in October, suggests that ExxonMobil knew about the connection between burning fossil fuels and global warming, but still misled the public about existing climate change risks.
In an attempt to turn the tables and defend the company’s threatened reputation, Exxon’s Vice President for Public and Government Affairs Kenneth Cohen issued a letter in response to the report, addressed to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, in which he accused the journalists of inaccurate reporting and manipulating research data. The letter also seemed to convey a veiled threat that the financial partnership between Exxon and the university, which received more than $200,000 from the oil giant last year, may be in danger.
“ExxonMobil has had numerous and productive relationships with Columbia University for many years, whether through research programs, interactions with the business school or recruiting of graduates for employment with our company,” Cohen said in his letter. “The interactions [between Exxon and the Columbia journalists] detailed above are not typical of the high standards and ethical behavior we have come to expect from your institution.”
Cohen’s letter has drawn widespread criticism, with numerous journalists and communications professionals calling on Exxon to apologize for attaching its financial relationships with the university to the issue.
Even though Cohen’s letter didn’t overtly say that Exxon would stop providing financial support to the university or recruiting its students, it is easy to see why his letter backfired. While there is nothing inherently wrong with critiquing the report itself, the company should have evaluated how its response could be perceived as a threat directed at Columbia University and its journalists.
When it comes to crisis PR, every word uttered on behalf of a company already in the hot seat should be carefully calibrated. In failing to recognize the potential ramifications of its aggressive response, ExxonMobil added the proverbial fuel to the fire, further endangering its reputation and drawing even more scrutiny to its brand.