Tomorrow, Valdez

April 30, 2007

As I write this I am in Anchorage preparing to board a boat tomorrow for a trip to Valdez. It promises to be a beautiful ride–if the weather holds up–through famed or infamous Prince William Sound. I am here to observe and participate in a major oil spill drill. Something all oil companies do in cooperation with state and federal agencies every year. A requirement coming out of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and prompted by the Exxon Valdez accident.

Valdez has that ring of history to it. In the crisis management business few names or places, have more meaning than Valdez and Prince William Sound. It is hard to believe that that event was almost 20 years ago. How much has changed, and yet, in crisis management, there are some things that haven’t changed. Looking back on pivotal events such as this helps to understand what has changed and what hasn’t.

There are few examples that anyone can point to that were more damaging to a companies reputation than the Exxon Valdez incident. And few disasters more expensive. Yet, one thing that is interesting with the perspective of time is that to some degree it doesn’t seem to matter. ExxonMobil is the most profitable company in the world–in the history of the world. It is famed for its discipline, its almost military corporate culture, its rigorous focus on what it needs to do to meet the expectations of shareholders. It is highly respected. And yet, there is still a cloud. It can almost be felt in the halls of its corporate headquarters near Dallas. And the cloud hangs low like the overcast skies over Anchorage not just over this company, but over the entire industry.

Does the cloud matter? To shareholders? To fuel products consumers? To employees?

I have no answers. Just asking the questions. All I know is tomorrow I will see, as I have many many times over in the past ten years, a great many very good people working exceptionally hard to do all the right things. All the while knowing very well that the worst can happen. That too, is the legacy of Valdez and Prince William Sound.

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