It has all the makings for a blockbuster movie. Just image:

An earnest young engineer (played by a beefy, Chris Hemsworth-type) arrives in an idyllic rural Pennsylvania town determined to introduce the modern wonder that is fracking to the locals. It’ll revive the town’s fortunes! he swears.

A sincere young geologist (smart/sexy… Ellen Page or Jennifer Lawrence, if they could get her) warns the citizens that fracking will destroy the environment. But the townspeople embrace fracking and the jobs it will bring with wild enthusiasm.

Everything is going great… and then…. the incident occurs. There is catastrophic damage to the town’s environment. The young man realizes the error of his ways and – with the young geologist, whom he now dating – leaks critical corporate information, forcing the oil company bigwigs to compensate the townspeople with …

Free Pizza!

Ridiculous, right? But reality is stranger than fiction. And this is reality.

The Catastrophe

The actual letter & gift certificate from Chevron
image via article

Just last week, the unthinkable happened in Bobtown,Pennsylvania. 

A Chevron fracking rig exploded and was consumed in flames for five days.  There’s one injured and one missing and presumed dead.  

Chevron sent local residents a letter of apology
… with a handwritten gift certificate 
…to a pizza joint 
…for a free special combo and soda.
(offer expires May 1, 2014)

You can read about it via this article on

It seems that Chevron knew an accident might happen and was somewhat prepared. Chevron had been providing daily updates via their web site News section. They even have a fancy mission statement about safety on their website :

We want to be respected not just for our accomplishments, but for how we achieve them. We are committed to operating safely, protecting our workers, and dealing responsibly and ethically with our stockholders, employees, partners and the public.We work to create a better future in the communities in which we operate. Partnership is the cornerstone of our approach.” (found on


Chevron is actually doing brilliantly: updates are factual, covering pertinent information, answering questions, and deferring to government officials where necessary, even expressing concern and consideration to the family of the missing person (there’s a State Police investigation ongoing).  

In fact, there’s nothing that I can point to on the operational side that is being done wrong.  There are competent professionals doing dangerous work quickly and properly under complicated conditions.
But free pizza?????

The Real Problem

It reminds me of a saying often repeated in the Navy:

 One “Aww, Sh*t!” cancels out one hundred “Atta boy”s. 

It doesn’t matter that Chevron is correctly doing everything they can to contain the damage while protecting their workers and community.  All anyone is going to remember is:

“Sorry for the fracking explosion! 
Have a pizza on us and let’s call it even.”

Let me say this again: Chevron’s technical response is spot-on perfect. They’re controlling the fire, protecting the workers, getting equipment in, and working with government at all levels.  

No, the real disaster for Chevron is not the technical response. It’s the goodwill and public relations. Someone at Chevron was desperate to do something – and they somehow settled on pizza. They were so focused on doing something that they didn’t take time to consider if they were doing the right thing – giving people what they want and need in a crisis.
And what do people want when their lives and homes are in danger? 

They want to be reassured that the response will protect people, minimize damage and return things to normal as quickly as possible.   They want to trust that the people responsible understand their needs and take them seriously. They want reassurance that the people responding are competent. And when you’re managing a crisis, your number one priority needs to be finding the best possible way to build and keep trust. 

The Right Response

Years ago, I worked with the head of the US Navy’s Strategic Systems Program. He told me this story:

He had been aboard a ballistic missile submarine off of Florida when they tested a new sea-launched ballistic missile. Upon launch, the missile cleared the water … then proceeded to do loop-de-loops before exploding. 

The submarine returned to port, the admiral left the sub, went straight to the airport, and flew to National Airport in DC. There, he was greeted by his aide with a clean uniform.  From there, it was on to Capitol Hill to appear immediately before a Congressional committee.  All the admiral knew at this point was that the missile had failed. He hasn’t even seen the launch. 

The committee questioned him about what he was going to do about the failure and the admiral explained the engineering review that would followed.  The committee was reassured that the admiral had things well in hand, and dismissed him.  

So he went to his office,  where his aide put a video tape of the launch in the playback unit – to finally show the admiral what had happened.  

When he saw the tape, the director immediately gasped, “Oh my God!  What are we going to do?!?!

The admiral knew what the right response was – he had already given it to Congress. But the emotional impact of seeing the actual incident triggered his panicked response. It was the fight or flight response, a natural reaction when something horrible and threatening happens.  It’s almost impossible to resist on an individual basis because humans are programmed to react that way (as we have discussed before). But it can be controlled on an organizational level with proper planning and execution.  Chevron obviously had a plan – one they put a lot of effort into. That means this happened for one of two reasons: someone planned inadequately, or someone deviated from the established plan.
During a crisis so terrible, no one can afford to waste time or energy on anything doesn’t actually help people be safer. Hopefully Chevron will improve their crisis management so that future incidents don’t spawn similar gaffes – and pull critical focus from the safety of innocent bystanders. Hopefully, they’ll learn the difference between a token gesture and real help. 

Maybe, they will learn.  

If not, it will cost them a lot more than a few pizzas.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.