The Chevron poll

December 17, 2010

WaPo’s Paul Farhi has the story today of PFC Opinion Research, which is offering journalists $250 to talk on the phone for 25 minutes about their opinions of the oil and gas industry. News reporters might be supposed to keep their opinions out of their copy, but Farhi makes it very clear where he’s coming from on this front:

News reporters are supposed to keep their opinions out of their copy. They certainly aren’t supposed to sell them back to the people they cover.

Yet now there’s a hush-hush way for journalists to turn their innermost thoughts into cold hard cash. A New York research firm has been trolling Washington and other precincts in search of reporters willing to unburden themselves. For a price.

WaPo ran a poll alongside Farhi’s piece, which is currently running 64%-32% against Farhi, and in favor of those who see no ethical problem in journalists selling their opinions. My feeling is that if a journalist gets paid cash by a company they cover, that’s a conflict of interest. And many other journalists seem to think the same way:

[PFC director David] Leonard acknowledged that some would-be participants had turned down the offer on ethical grounds (and one said he would donate his fee to charity). As of Wednesday, six journalists had agreed to take part, leaving Leonard four short of his goal.

“It’s ironic that journalists depend on people to give them their opinions but aren’t as forthcoming with their own,” Leonard said. “It’s easier to get a congressman to participate.”

This is where the full-disclosure bit comes in: I was one of the people approached. In fact, I’m the journalist singled out as saying I would donate my fee to charity, which isn’t exactly right — I asked that the fee be sent directly to Doctors Without Borders, and not given to me at all. For one thing, I’m hardly shy with my opinions, and it doesn’t take $250 to get me to part with them: people can get them for free just by emailing me. So I felt that it would demonstrate an excess of self-regard to turn down the opportunity to raise $250 for Doctors Without Borders just by talking on the phone for 25 minutes. And it’s not like my opinions are secret, since, just like when I’m asked questions via email, I always reserve the right to blog them as well.

And so I got a phone call at 10:30 this morning from a chap named Mike Green, who said that we’d be talking about oil and gas, and that he would be recording the conversation and taking notes.

It rapidly became clear that this wasn’t some kind of push poll, like the one I got last year about Argentina: this was a genuine opinion poll, from people who wanted to know my opinion of the oil and gas industry in general, and of four companies in particular.

First I was asked to name a few oil and gas companies, and was asked, when I didn’t volunteer their names, whether I’d heard of Total and ConocoPhilips. Then the conversation moved on to BP: What’s the first thing you think of when you hear their name? Of course, I said the disaster in the Gulf.

Then the seven-point scale was introduced, which we’d use for most of the rest of the interview. On a seven-point scale, how well did I know BP as a company? How favorable is my opinion of it? And then the same questions for Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell.

After that, the questions got a bit weird and recondite. How likely would I be to support or recommend each of those four companies for an important project? To what extent does each one challenge conventional wisdom? Deliver practical solutions to industry issues? Minimize the impact of of its operations on the environment? Attract & develop talented employees? Recognize the importance of supporting local communities? Believe in and values people and their progress? Lead the industry in operational excellence? That sort of thing.

Green was unfazed when he asked me to rate on a seven-point scale the degree to which each of the four companies had a “collaborative and inclusive approach to solving challenges and issues”, and I told him that I couldn’t answer the question because it wasn’t in English and I had no idea what an “inclusive approach” might possibly mean.

Eventually, we got to the point at which the client became more obvious — the poll was coming from some kind of communications company, to help out with their communications strategy. Had I seen ads for oil and gas companies online? Outdoor posters or billboards? TV ads? Print ads? Which ads stood out the most?

Did I recognize any certain phrases? “Will you join us”. “Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenges”. “Let’s go”. “Beyond petroleum”. “Human energy”. Had I talked to these companies at conferences? Talked about them on blogs? Been to a gas station? Met with management? Had I heard of

Finally, it became clear who the ultimate client was, with a series of questions about Chevron’s commnuications in particular. What did I think about those communications? Did they make me think that Chevron is a leader on energy issues? A straight talking company? Had they positively changed my opinion of Chevron? Made me think that Chevron is part of the solution? Did I recall seeing ads for Chevron?

After all that, it was just a matter of asking for my address — apparently the way that they’re proving that they’re sending the check is to make it out to Doctors Without Borders, but to send it to me at Reuters. Which is fine by me. The most annoying part of the whole thing was that it ended up taking more like 45 minutes than the promised 25 minutes.

As a general rule, my answers tended to be very low on the scale, across the board. I didn’t distinguish much between the four different oil companies, and I said that in the wake of the BP disaster, I strongly discount anything I hear from such companies. Before the disaster I guess I thought a bit more highly of BP than of its climate-change-denialist counterparts; now, I said, I just think that big oil companies are big oil companies.

I wasn’t very helpful on the communications front, although I did remember the “We Agree” prank. And since I’m a finance blogger and not an energy blogger, I didn’t know much about differences in the way the specific companies operate. I don’t know how useful my answers are going to turn out to be, but given how much time the interview took, I think the $250 payment is fair. God knows Chevron can afford it.

The biggest issue I have with all this is the secrecy involved If you talk to journalists, those conversations are likely to become public, so I can’t imagine they’ll be too upset about me revealing their identity. But now that I’ve done so, I doubt this project will really help Chevron’s public image: it just makes them look as though they’re trying to bribe journalists. And that can’t be a good thing.


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