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Exxon CEO Commencement Speech: How to Win Over An Angry Mob

Worcester Polytechnic Institute may have invited Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to give the commencement speech this upcoming weekend, but it's not exactly rolling out the welcome mat. Faculty have protested, students have threatened to leave during the ceremony and the college has even hired a counter-speaker from the Post Carbon Institute.

Tillerson is surely used to his Big Oil pariah status by now. Exxon (XOM) -- with its billions in oil profits -- is the company people love to hate. And as its leader, Tillerson has been booed and criticized before.

Facing an angry crowd is never easy, but if Tillerson plays his cards right, he might have a shot at winning over his biggest critics. Here are a few last-minute tips for Tillerson or any other top exec preparing to give a speech under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Don't pull a Whitman
Ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman was scheduled to address UCLA's Anderson School of Management in 2009, but never made it to the podium. Whitman, a Republican California gubernatorial candidate at the time, was criticized for her support of Prop 8, which would have upheld a ban on gay marriage. She canceled her speech, citing "scheduling conflicts."

Acknowledge the protest.

Some graduates from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs were outraged in 2010 when Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit was chosen as the commencement speaker. The country was still reeling from the financial crisis and students were upset that a Wall Street banker -- not a humanitarian -- would be addressing them on graduation. Pandit not only acknowledged the protests and criticism in the opening lines of his speech, he welcomed it:

Bankers don't often get invited to speak, that is unless they're in front of Congress. I do know that the invitation for me to speak here today stirred up some controversy. And I think that's a healthy sign. I would be surprised, even disappointed if some of the most intense debate and criticism of the financial industry were not coming from this university.

Americans have the right to be angry about the financial crisis. People should question the financial system and those who run it.

Contact your critics before the speech
Talk about ballsy. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who spoke to Syracuse University's class of 2010, called a student who was leading a protest movement against the university's decision to invite the Wall Street banker. Dimon then kicked off his commencement speech recounting the conversation. Brilliant.
I also know that some of your fellow students have raised question about me being your commencement speaker. When I heard about these protests, I wanted to understand what was behind them, so I called one of the students leading that movement, and we had a good conversation -- I'm sure she's here somewhere. I heard her concerns about me, the nation's banking system and about capitalism itself. Some I thought were legitimate, others I disagreed with. But whether I agree with her or not, I say 'good for her,' I'm proud of her for speaking up.
Be accountable and own your mistakes
Both Pandit and Dimon successfully have woven this message into their speeches. Dimon's entire speech revolved around the central message of accountability. And to his credit, Dimon appears to have followed his own advice. Dimon said JPMorgan Chase would pay for errors it made in processing foreclosure paperwork on defaulted home loans.

Photo from Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker, CC 2.0

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