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As gas prices soar, Exxon Mobil tries to cultivate a gentler image

DALLAS -- It has been accused of profiting off the backs of hard-working Americans, keeping the world's biggest economy addicted to oil, and being an enemy of the planet.

There isn't much Exxon Mobil Corp. is not accused of.

It is America's biggest and most profitable company, and now, one of America's biggest corporate villains in the eyes of consumers squeezed by rising gasoline prices.

The world's largest public oil company has for years dealt with a barrage of criticism. But the controversy over gasoline topping $3 a gallon, its $36 billion profit last year, and a large pay package for a former chief executive has recently turned the normally reclusive company into one pitching a consumer-friendly image.

Exxon Mobil is offering to engage in a dialogue with its critics, flooding the airwaves and newspapers with advertisements. It has even sent its chief executive on the popular ``Today" morning show to win hearts and minds.

Nowhere was the kinder, gentler image Exxon is pushing hard to develop more obvious than in Dallas last week, where Rex Tillerson presided over its annual meeting for the first time as chief executive.

In a departure from his predecessor Lee Raymond's frosty manner, Tillerson laughed with critics, joked about holding the meeting in Luckenbach, Texas, and patiently answered repeated questions on global warming.

Also gone were the snippy retorts to shareholder tirades for which Raymond was famous. And neither did Tillerson adopt Raymond's tactic of abruptly switching off the microphone when a speaker crossed his allotted two-minute time limit. The meeting ended with some critics calling his manner ``civil" and ``gracious."

``We are the largest oil company in the world," Tillerson told reporters. ``People are going to be watching what we say."

All that has given hope to some of Exxon's detractors.

``We are hoping this is a moment in time," said Athan Manuel, a lobbyist with the public watchdog group US PIRG.

But Tillerson has made it clear he is not straying from the company's long-held beliefs and investment practices. The company still believes oil prices will come down from their lofty $70 a barrel levels, unlike others in the industry who think high oil prices are here to stay. It views the science behind global warming with skepticism. And you won't see it investing in wind or solar energy soon.

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