As the sharp images of the Exxon Valdez oil spill begin to blur in the collective memory of Alaskans, the oil industry has stopped nursing its wounds and has gone on the offensive to try to recoup its lost goodwill.
ARCO Alaska, probably the leading oil company in shaping public opinion in the state, went to the airwaves last month with a softfocus, emotional commercial that intersperses shots of oil developments with MatSu farmers, rugged loggers, and a boy riding a horse on a beach. The patriotic tune in the background is so catchy that people have written for sheet music, and at least one person has suggested it replace "Alaska's Flag" as the state song.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is preparing a series of newspaper advertisements of its own that it hopes will heal some of the bruises to its credibility that it suffered from its slow response to the March 24 oil spill. A spokesman said the campaign will take the opposite approach to ARCO's, shunning emotion for facts that can be verified by anyone so inclined.
In addition, Alyeska's housecleaning of its former managers appears to be having results. One of Alyeska's longtime critics, biologist Riki Ott of Cordova District Fishermen United, says that Alyeska's new manager for environmental issues has been so friendly and open that he has disarmed some of the local opposition.
Ott said the result has been a split in the Prince William Sound fishing community, with some people saying that Alyeska should be trusted with another opportunity to prove itself, while others, including herself, argue that the pipeline company should be measured solely by its deeds.
Oil took a beating in the minds of Alaskans right after the spill, according to the state's two leading pollsters, David Dittman and Marc Hellenthal. Both say that the industry began to recover some of its lost popularity in the months that followed as Exxon mounted a billiondollar cleanup, changes were made in tanker operations under both industry initiative and state demands, and business groups like the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce reminded Alaskans of their connections to the industry, one of the main economic engines in the state.
How far oil has recovered is a matter of some dispute. Dittman, who polls for ARCO, said the numbers of people who feel oil has been good for Alaska are within four or five percentage points of their prespill level.
"There really hasn't been much of a change that is longlasting," Dittman said.
Hellenthal says polls he has done for organizations outside of the oil industry show a wider gap between pre and postspill that may be harder to bridge.
"It isn't up at all to prespill level, when we had a love affair 70 percent liked the oil companies before the spill," Hellenthal said.
The spill couldn't have happened at a worse time for the industry. It was in the middle of a legislative battle over oil taxation and running a media campaign to try to win the issue.
Within a week of the spill, Hellenthal said, all the ads vanished. That's public relations by the books, whether the cause is an airplane crash or an oil spill. When someone is suffering a huge negative rating in the public eye, Hellenthal said, even positive advertising can have bad results. "It's just reminding people who they dislike."
In the punitive environment that followed, oil taxes were raised and more regulations were put on the books. Together, they will cost the industry billions of dollars over the next two or three decades.
"Around the beginning of August, what they were doing was huddling, trying to figure out what they would do," Hellenthal said. "Time and distance cure all."
The three new ARCO ads one 60second spot and two of 30 seconds are master strokes, he said.
"It's classical conditioning. It's got a nice warm feeling, and then they pair it with oil. When CNN showed every day the goose with a broken neck covered with oil, that was the same thing in the reverse."
Susan Andrews, an ARCO spokeswoman, said the advertising was designed to help all Alaskans heal their wounds, oil company employees included, and not address any particular issue.
"We felt definitely that the oil spill did shake a lot of us. We all felt uneasy after that event. We felt this was the time to help rebuild some trust, and also make people feel better about being Alaskans. We hoped to rebuild that faith in our state and in the future, and the oil industry plays a part in that future."
The reaction has been better than she had hoped. "I've never had such overwhelming response to an ad. It's pretty amazing," she said.
The commercials were made by Bradley Advertising under the direction of two of its associate creative directors, Terri Burmester and Allyson Wright. It was Wright who penned the lyrics to the song, which ends with the line, "Alaska, the dream belongs to you," while the ARCO logo is displayed on the screen.
Once the idea came to her, Wright said, she finished the job in an hour and a half. She's had so many requests for the lyrics that she has had to order sheet music prepared by a printer.
Burmester said callers have told her that the commercial brings tears to their eyes.
The images were photographed around the state in September. None were taken in Prince William Sound, Burmester said, because the weather was uncooperative.
Andrews wouldn't say how much the commercials cost to produce. Estimates from people in the public relations business in Anchorage range from $60,000 to more than $150,000, not including air time.
The commercials have provoked mixed feelings for Dave Cline, vice president of the National Audubon Society for the Alaska region.
"I understand why the industry does it, but I think it increases their credibility problem. They are deceiving the public because industry does in fact cause serious environmental problems, even in the North Slope oil fields. I think these ads are being done to convince the public the situation is otherwise."
Cline said the situation remains unbalanced because the environmental community can't afford to go on television with its own commercials.
"Industry is very successful in telling their side of it," he said. "The oil industry is a messy business and oil is a toxic substance. Until the industry admits that, and shows how they're using stateoftheart technology and safety procedures to protect the environment, their credibility will continue to suffer."
Alyeska's upcoming ads will be designed to do just that, said spokesman George Jurkowich.
"They're very factually oriented they tell our audiences more about what we do and how we do it. There's very little puffery in there. The intent is to provide a good deal of information that's verifiable. There's no general claims, no future promises."
Unlike ARCO, which was largely a bystander to the spill, though not its fallout, Alyeska has been blamed for not doing enough to contain the 11 million gallons of oil after it burst from the damaged ship. As a result, its image has been particularly battered.
Besides the newspaper advertising campaign, Jurkowich has said Alyeska will be particularly active in the upcoming United Way campaign, a drive it has supported heavily before. One of its motivations, Jurkowich said, is internal morale among Alyeska employees took a dive after the spill, and helping the community might be a way for workers to regain their esteem.
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