Rawleigh Warner Jr., 92, Redefined Corporate PR At Mobil

There may be a few exceptions but most CEOs would like their companies to be viewed as Good Corporate Citizens -- a persona that can be as elusive to oil companies as a flopping flounder in an oil slick. But with Herb Schmertz, his gun-slinging public relations chief covering his every move, former Mobil CEO and president Rawleigh Warner Jr., took on the press in combative op-ed pieces, pulled all advertising from the Wall Street Journal in 1984 because he didn’t like the cut of its gibes and wooed the high-minded public by sponsoring PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater.” 

Warner died on June 26 in Hobe Sound, Fla., from complications of a progressive muscle disease known as inclusion body myositis, Bloomberg’s Laurence Arnold reports. He was 92, and also long-maintained a home in New Canaan, Conn., with his wife of 66 years, the former Mary Ann deClairmont. Survivors include two daughters, four grandchildren and four great-grandsons.



In the process of redefining corporate communications at Mobil, the financially oriented Warner also increased revenue tenfold (from $6.8 billion when he started in 1969 to $60 billion in 1985, his last full year) and “transformed Mobil from a money loser in the 1950s to the second-largest American company in the early 1980s, trailing only Exxon, with which Mobil merged in 1999,” Douglas Martin reports in the New York Times.

“Warner jettisoned the company’s flying horse symbol, Pegasus, in favor of a simple red and blue block-letter logo with the word Mobil,” Martin informs us, and he “gave Mobil’s gas stations a long overdue face-lift.”

A Princeton grad and Army artillery captain in World War II, “Warner was an early voice in the industry on conservation and pollution, insisting in 1970 that ‘lead must go’ as a gasoline ingredient,” according to the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Miller. “The company cut its conventional gasoline ads in the early 1970s and instead began broadcasting conservation-themed spots urging ‘Fifty is thrifty’ -- a reference to miles per hour -- and car-pooling.”

Patrick Kiger blogs that author Tom Wolfe had a point when he quipped that “the first letter in PBS stood for petroleum, because oil money underwrote so much public broadcast programming, pointing out that “Masterpiece” got its start in 1971 thanks to the “largesse” of Warner’s $490,000 grant. 

It wasn’t solely largesse at play, of course.

“Warner argued that sponsoring ‘Masterpiece’ made money for Mobil,” according to TV historian Jeffrey S. Miller. “Warner pointed to a 1982 poll in which 31% of ‘upscale’ respondents -- many of whom presumably were ‘Masterpiece’ viewers -- identified Mobil as the gasoline brand they most often purchased,” Kiger writes for the AARP Blog.

When critics “complained about rising gas prices and high oil-company profits, and there were persistent rumors of oil tankers waiting offshore for prices to rise before they unloaded,” Warner put on his boxing gloves, as Miller reports in the Wall Street Journal.

“Mobil responded with ads asserting that oil-company profits weren't high enough and asking, ‘Whatever happened to fair play?’ Advertising Age was impressed enough with Mobil's unusual ‘advocacy advertising’ to make Mr. Warner its ‘Adman of the Year’ for 1975.”

“Mobil’s high profile reflected its chairman’s belief that big business needed to stand up to criticism, Newsweek reported in 1976,” Bloomberg’s Arnold reports. “My worry is that I don’t see many other people responding as we have,” Warner said in the piece. “I think it’s wrong for business to hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over.”

Schmertz, the former labor lawyer and Kennedy election operative who orchestrated Mobil’s op-ed presence in papers such as the Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, wrote a book in the 1980s with William Novak about Mobil’s take-no-prisoners approach called Goodbye to the Low Profile: The Art of Creative Confrontation.

Reviewing it in the New York Times, Bryce Nelson, director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, wrote that it would “please certain readers because it says what many of us want to hear -- that you can often fight the news media moguls to a draw and even batter them around the ears a bit. Mr. Schmertz writes that ‘confrontation is good for you,’ and in fact ‘is just about the best tool you can have at your disposal.’ When confronting the news media with a complaint, Mr. Schmertz advises businessmen to exhibit a ‘cheerful feistiness’ -- a tone that pervades this book.”

And that perhaps defined Warner’s brute force charm and talent as CEO.

Next story loading loading..