Oil industry concentrates on safety amid continued Gulf crisis

The oil industry at large is communicating about its safety record and the role the industry plays in the US economy as BP still struggles to stop the unprecedented oil spill and policymakers question the function of current regulations.

The oil industry at large is communicating about its safety record and the role the industry plays in the US economy as BP still struggles to stop the unprecedented oil spill and policymakers question the function of current regulations.

More than 45 days ago, the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

While BP's response has focused on providing access to CEO Tony Hayward and immediate updates using social media channels, the industry is using similar tactics to address questions about its safety record and the US reliance on domestic oil production.

“We know that our industry has got to restore the public's and policymakers' confidence in the safety of deep water drilling operations,” says Dave Samson, GM of public affairs for Chevron. “Our aim is to do that.”

The company has sought to reinforce safety standards with employees, including drilling personnel and rig crews, and participated in two joint industry task forces created by President Barack Obama.

Samson said the communications team also saw an opportunity to address safety at Chevron's annual meeting, an event covered by news outlets. Exxon Mobil also addressed the crisis in the Gulf at its annual meeting and its CEO told Reuters that policymakers should be “thoughtful” on the spill.

In Washington, the crisis sits against the “backdrop of a national election coming up in November,” notes Howard Opinsky, EVP at Powell Tate, and some Beltway groups are using the crisis to advocate for limits to offshore drilling and chemical disclosure.

“You've got members on both sides of the aisle who want to deplore the actions of BP,” he says. “Yet, at the same time, many of these same folks have been supportive of the idea of offshore drilling, supportive of the idea of using domestic resources.”

If policymakers eventually seek to restrict offshore oil drilling, the impact could stretch from a jobs and economic issue to a national energy security issue. Jean Gould, director of corporate and government affairs for Coyne PR, worked at Exxon for 20 years.

“There is going to be additional regulation and scrutiny,” she says. “What the industry will be focused on is demonstrating and trying to earn back the trust of the American public that it is a job that they can do and do it successfully.”

Defining oil and natural gas development offshore as important to the US economy is one message that the American Petroleum Institute (API) is focusing on. The trade group is reaching out to the media, public, and policymakers, says Bill Bush, communications advisor for API.

“The main thing we're saying is that we need to address the spill, stop the leak, clean up the oil, understand the causes, and correct them,” he says. “We're also saying that oil and natural gas development off-shore is very important to the nation.”

API is using social media, which has been heavily used by BP in its crisis response, to communicate how the different components of the oil spill could affect public policy, says Jessica Pointer, communications associate for the trade association. API CEO Jack Gerard is featured in three YouTube videos and the team is updating Facebook, Twitter, and its blog daily.

Yet, communicators agree that until the leak is stopped and the cause of the explosion is discovered, it will be difficult for industry and policymakers to take a hard stance on regulations.

Gould says that industry is saying, “Yes, there is a problem, but the industry shouldn't be seen in a broad brush stroke on the safety performance.”

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