As dozens of national reporters jostled for position in the Valdez community center on Day 3 of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the battle against a deadly black tide spreading through Prince William Sound already was doomed. But the battle for control of the story of America's biggest oil spill was just beginning.
A seemingly bumbling Exxon Corp. and an aggrieved state of Alaska employed conflicting pictures, words and numbers to help reporters tell thousands of spill stories.
Within days, nearly all the available boats, planes and helicopters were chartered by Exxon, and getting to the spill scene for most reporters meant going on closely supervised tours, subject to the persuasions of Exxon or state press officers. During the first month or two of the cleanup, boat owners and spill workers were told they would lose their contracts and jobs if they spoke with reporters.
Awash over a huge, remote area and complicated by difficult scientific, legal and technological issues, the oil spill was the kind of big, breaking story that often gives the press trouble, according to press critics.
"Unless you are on the scene and know the background, you pretty much take the information of people in the know," said Ben Bagdikian, a journalism professor at the University of California Berkeley. "In an oil spill, it's an oil company and whoever is in charge of preventing and cleaning it up."
In a typical exchange last summer, Exxon would announce how many people were working, how many miles of boom were deployed and how many miles of beach were cleaned. Then Environmental Conservation Commissioner Dennis Kelso or another state official would stick his hand under the surface of the beach and display an oily "reality."
"They had numbers, we had images," said Ernie Piper, special assistant to Gov. Steve Cowper.
After the state filed suit against the company, the battle intensified over "how clean is clean," the extent of environmental damage, and whether the company should return for a cleanup this summer. By then, lawyers for the state, federal government and Exxon were keeping all damage assessments secret, freezing out reporters who already had trouble understanding the complex interactions of otters, starfish, kelp, fish, plankton and bacteria.
The word now in vogue to describe these efforts to control the terms and significance of a story, and resulting public opinion, is "spin." The White House, the Coast Guard, visiting congressmen, environmentalists, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., fishermen, Joe Hazelwood's lawyers lots of people were applying spin control to the oil spill story.
Company officials declined to discuss Exxon's public relations strategy and performance, except to acknowledge that a thorough selfexamination is under way.
"We'd rather talk about what we did over the summer and where we're going," said spokesman Perry Smith. "We're making the points we want to make."
As the story unfolded on Day 3, most reporters portrayed a "pristine" coastal wilderness drenched by nearly 11 million gallons of North Slope crude. Later would come heartrending images of dead otters and birds, images that numbers could not defeat.
A C130 tanker aircraft stood ready to drop dispersants on what was then a 32squaremile slick, but tests had failed, apparently as a result of cold weather and calm seas. Some scientists and fishermen argued that use of the dispersant, a detergent designed to break up oil into tiny particles, would spread pollution through the food chain.
This was among the first of many continuing controversies about containment and cleanup techniques, uncertainty about who was in charge and other plot complications that would drive the story for months.
Exxon Chairman Lawrence Rawl, criticized for not coming to Alaska until April 14, three weeks after the spill, was doing highlevel spin control from headquarters.
"I concluded we were going to be up to our butts in alligators right here. I wanted to be able to deal with Congress, as well as operate the best we could around the world," Rawl told Fortune magazine.
In testimony before a House subcommittee April 6, Rawl laid the foundation for the company's legal attack on the state for allegedly impeding the cleanup, and argued against doublehulled tankers and stricter regulation.
Piper, Gov. Cowper's special assistant, said the state was caught completely offguard by Exxon's offensive.
"Suddenly we started seeing statements that we didn't allow use of dispersants. We were mystified," said Piper.
"And Andy Spear (a former DEC official) said, "I'll tell you where it came from, the Amoco Cadiz case.' " In that oil spill off the coast of France, a judge reduced the damages against Amoco because the government didn't allow the immediate use of dispersants.
"Suddenly the light went on," Piper said. "Cowper was very angry. This wasn't two contesting interpretations of an incident. This was entirely fabricated . . . for a specific litigation reason, not because it was based on the public record," Piper said.
"The problem with the story from the state's point of view was, to the general public it was a plausible argument that bureaucrats somehow stalled things, because what do bureaucrats do? They create red tape. So this is the story in Congress now. And we're on the defensive. That's when (Cowper's press secretary David) Ramseur sat down and said, whether we like it or not, we've been pulled into a public relations battle here and we'll have to play in it or get killed."
In his congressional testimony, Rawl also sketched the company's strategy for minimizing political damage that could stop development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where oil companies hope to find the last major deposits in the United States. Environmentalists, who portray the refuge as America's last untouched arctic environment, were rallying antiExxon sentiment against ANWR development.
"The best way to turn around the negatives would be to get some positives from the spill cleanup, and prompt settlement of claims and so on," Rawl said.
And that is exactly what Exxon tried to do, contracting hundreds of fishing boats, hiring 11,000 workers and paying out more than $200 million from claims offices throughout the area.
Kelso and other officials increased the state's profile by appearing on major shows like Nightline, while crafting better quotes for public consumption.
Holding up a copy of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.'s oil spill contingency plan at one congressional hearing, Kelso declared: "This is probably the biggest piece of maritime fiction since Moby Dick."
Few reporters asked where Kelso was before the spill, when he approved Alyeska's contingency plan.
"Kelso was very articulate," said Washington Post reporter Jay Matthews. "We didn't press him on that."
The state also began producing a newsletter and its own videos of oilclogged beaches, Native villages and dozens of other subjects, provided free to dozens of TV stations in the Lower 48.
But the state was not alone in the video news release game.
In what public relations firms call the biggest crisis management effort ever involving video news releases, Exxon paid more than $3 million to Jack Hilton Inc., a New York PR counseling firm, to produce more than 25 tapes seen across the country by more than 25 million viewers. Another highpowered firm advised Exxon on strategy.
According to some who have analyzed Exxon's handling of spill PR, the company followed a familiar tactic in corporate disasters by portraying itself as the victim first of fate, then of the state of Alaska, then of the sheer size and stubbornness of the hardening crude itself.
"Remember, Audi Motors had a bunch of highperformance cars that would jerk into gear? They said, "Look, we can't help it if all these little old ladies buy our cars and can't control them,' " said Herb Gunther, director of a nonprofit public relations firm that advises the Alaska Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and other environmental and liberal groups.
Gunther, who developed an oilspill PR strategy for the state of Alaska that was never implemented, is one of the few observers who think Exxon succeeded in minimizing damage by acting like the "Oakland Raiders" of the oil industry.
"Considering that it was basically a nowin situation, they decided to number one, tough it out, and two, stand up and say we are not the only one that's guilty. They blamed the state of Alaska, the Coast Guard, the greedy people of Alaska, and of course, Hazelwood."
The company exploited Alaska's "blueeyed Arab" stigma that the state is peopled by greedy provincials who don't pay taxes, get an $800 check every year and pay 85 percent of government bills with money from oil. A large number of stories focused on $17anhour rock scrubbers, and the economic boom caused by the spill, said Gunther.
Alaska lost its credibility as an environmental leader because Exxon successfully pushed this kind of coverage, he said.
Most observers thought Exxon blew its chances in the first few days in Valdez. An almost unanimous legion of PR professionals agreed with John Porter, president of Porter|Novelli, who said Exxon's performance was "a case history in poor PR."
According to various PR experts, Exxon messed up by not apologizing soon enough, and then apologizing but without much apparent conviction in a single series of newspaper ads; by changing spokesmen so often; by restricting all spill information to Valdez, scene of the accident; and by allowing angry fishermen and others to disrupt press conferences, where captive reporters could get an easy, dramatic story.
Exxon Shipping President Frank Iarossi became the first of a succession of company officials dispatched to face the press in Valdez. While Iarossi was defending the company's spill response as "excellent" and suggesting the spill would soon be under control, the state was telling a far different story. According to Mark Dowie, an investigative reporter and former editor of the leftleaning magazine Mother Jones, the state was believable, Exxon was not.
"That was the lie that gave indication Exxon couldn't be trusted," Dowie said.
Randy Buckley, operations manager for Exxon USA's Alaska group, remembered one early press conference when reporters, prompted by state officials, challenged Exxon's claims on the number of skimmers working.
"It was extremely frustrating," he said, because Exxon was doing everything it could. "The success was on the ground, on the beaches. It was not a PR thing."
Buckley took a Time magazine reporter out for a personal helicopter tour to prove the skimmers were out there, he said.
Exxon learned a lesson from those early fights: It assumed greater control over physical access to the Sound and its cleanup workers, who were forbidden to talk with reporters. And it took charge of the numbers game.
"One thing they did win, and that was they effectively portrayed the spill as an actuarial event rather than a disaster," said Piper, the governor's assistant. "People say now, "They spent $2.3 billion, isn't that enough?' "
As the summer cleanup continued, the focus of many national stories shifted from the enormity of the disaster to the cleanup's size, complexity and frustrations, particularly Exxon's enormous costs. The oil was extremely difficult to remove, save by hot water, highpressure methods that, according to a preliminary federal study, were "cooking the intertidal zone."
"But despite Exxon's epic efforts, it is getting relatively little bang for its buck and, even worse, may inadvertently be doing more harm than good in some areas," concluded a typical July 27 Wall Street Journal story.
Coverage gradually shifted from stock fables of a paradise lost to sympathy for a bumbling, but basically hardworking corporation, said Norman Soloman, a California media analyst who is writing a book about press failings.
Exxon accomplished the shift by controlling the language used to describe what was happening in the Sound, he said.
"There is a corporate language that translates everything into dollars, and the parallel to that is the image game which is discussed quite openly: How much image damage did it cost Exxon? In other words, how many dollars do they have to spend to propagandize to reverse it? That is a mentality of mass propaganda."
"The reporting takes on the same value system."
He pointed to stories in National Geographic, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and other publications that concluded that Mother Nature, not Exxon, should finish the cleanup.
"The Disaster That Wasn't," said U.S. News on its Sept. 18 cover.
"Propaganda is not the occasional (hardhitting) story. It is the thematic repetition day after day. In that light the coverage of an event such as this is propaganda to accept the laissez faire attitude" toward regulation of the oil industry, Soloman said.
Reed Irvine, director of the conservative press watchdog Accuracy in Media, agreed that spill coverage was propagandistic. But he blamed a liberal media too eager to declare the next environmental disaster. It's an old story, from predictions of an ice age 20 years ago to the greenhouse effect today, he said.
After Exxon abandoned its original plan to restore all the beaches to prespill conditions, it said its new goal was to make the beaches stable so they would not harm fish or wildlife. A technique called bioremediation spreading fertilizer on the beaches to encourage oileating bacteria was the answer.
By Sept. 14, Otto Harrison, general manager of Exxon's cleanup, came close to declaring victory over the oiled beaches under the new definition. "I consider all of these to be environmentally stable."
When pressed, Harrison said that the company really couldn't make that statement until a scientific assessment was completed over the winter.
"It's a meaningless term, the way Exxon uses it," countered Steve Provant, the state Department of Environmental Conservation's onscene coordinator. "The beaches will be environmentally stable when a healthy, diverse population or organisms is back growing on the beaches."
At press conferences marking the end of the cleanup, Exxon displayed lightly stained rocks, and the state and environmentalists displayed rocks with a lot of oil on them. The rocks didn't answer many questions.
In a March 15 press conference, Exxon Corp. President Lee R. Raymond explained why oil slicks coming off the beaches are a good sign that the selfcleaning process is at work.
At Exxon's urging, and at the company's expense, a series of $1,800anhour chartered helicopter tours were staged for reporters doing anniversary stories. The Coast Guard and DEC participated in the tours. Reporters were issued maps, briefing books, lunches and red survival suits, then flown to five beaches in the Sound. An Exxon official directed the pilot to fly on a course that passed over a seal haulout.
"Look, there must be 50 of them."
During the tour, Exxon officials repeated the company's latest arguments against doing any digging or hotwater washing, costly strategies that cause "more harm than good" and flunk Exxon's test of "net environmental benefit."
"Have I received any guidance about key phrases I should promote? No I haven't," said Andy Teal, an Exxon environmental biologist.
Teal said the company's cleanup plan, and key media phrases, were developed in the field and then adopted by headquarters, not the other way around.
On Knight Island, reporters wandered around a stinking, oilpoisoned marsh that Exxon says is the worst spot left. But the company wants to leave this beach alone because trying to remove the heavy oil would supposedly cause "more harm than good."
Exxon's PR guy, Perry Smith, joked that the company could build an oil spill museum on the smelly site, and pay tourists to visit. "That will be an ongoing economic benefit."
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