Image Repair? Exxon Mobil Lets Scientists Tell Its Story
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Scientists are the most trusted spokespeople in America. Surveys show that they are the most admired profession and among institutions, only the military scores higher in terms of public confidence. Not only are scientists trusted authorities, the public strongly associates science with social progress and economic growth.
So when a company is struggling to tell its story and get its message across to the American public, it makes sense to turn to its scientists to deliver a message. It's basic branding. Just like companies pay millions to advertise and sponsor the Olympics, Exxon Mobil has spent millions in an attempt to create a strong mental association between the company and the American public's deep belief in science.
For example, the ad shown above uses a medical scientist to describe Exxon Mobil's work to battle Malaria in Africa. Other ads use scientists to describe Exxon's research on renewable energy while still other ads turn to scientists to promote the company's commitment to science education. The company has even started an "ambassador" program where Exxon scientists participate in science education programs at local schools. (Watch the series of ads here.)
But here is the flip side: Branding itself in association with science might be good for Exxon Mobil but is it good for the public image of science? The company is under increasing public criticism and has one of the lowest reputation scores of any major corporation. If Exxon Mobil redefines itself as a science company will that affect the public's perception of science?
I'm not sure. I think it could, but then again, surveys also show that the public can distinguish between govt. funded university science and privately funded science. What do readers think?
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