API targets bloggers as prices at the pump rise

WASHINGTON: The American Petroleum Institute's (API) recent outreach in the wake of record-high gas prices last week featured traditional media relations, but it has also added pitching to bloggers, a relatively new strategy, to its pre-driving season PR.

WASHINGTON: The American Petroleum Institute's (API) recent outreach in the wake of record-high gas prices last week featured traditional media relations, but it has also added pitching to bloggers, a relatively new strategy, to its pre-driving season PR.

Gas prices reached a record high of $3.18 last week, the start of the summer driving season.

Jane Van Ryan, senior manager of communications at API, which represents all aspects of the country's oil and gas industry, is heading up the association's blog-related efforts.

"We were watching communications on the Web for some time, and it became clear to us there was a whole other communications channel that perhaps we really didn't understand," Van Ryan said. "And we felt we should become more involved in it because there are a lot of policies and news-related items being discussed in this space."

The API's blog outreach began six weeks ago with the first of three blogger teleconferences on subjects including energy and environment and, most recently on May 16, gasoline prices.

"We provide a spokesperson who answers their questions. [We've] found the interchange to be very conversational in tone," she said. "They're looking for information and are knowledgeable about the issues, and we're grateful to have a dialogue with them."

The API invited 11 bloggers to its most recent conference, and nine attended. Blogs the API has reached out to include The Oil Drum, Energy Outlook, and the Daily Reckoning. Van Ryan said future conferences will certainly take place, and the API is currently determining the topics and schedule.

Of course, traditional media relations factored heavily into the response from the API, which handles all of its media relations in-house, after the prices rose. On the day that Karen Matusic, media relations representative at API, spoke to PRWeek, she said the group's team of seven media relations people received a "huge amount of calls" from the networks, major dailies, trade press, small newspapers in "virtually every state," and consumers about gas prices.

"Usually we have to offset what's being said on Capitol Hill or by governors and verify facts," Matusic said. Along with explaining the factors that determine gas prices, Matusic said another effort has been dispelling the rumor that US refineries are holding back supply and colluding to keep prices high.

"Our core spokespeople are active all the time, but they're really active now doing radio, print, and TV interviews, and speaking around the country at various venues," said Jim Craig, API VP for policy and communications.

Craig said the API does not tell the oil companies it represents what to do in terms of media and consumer outreach. "They are all very active right now, but we don't speak for a specific company," he explained.

Those companies told PRWeek they are mostly sticking to their original plans.

Shell Oil president John Hofmeister is currently in the midst of a 50-city "listening tour" he began a year ago to address the public's discontent with gas prices and the enormous profits of oil companies.

"We have a standard response that it's a market-driven issue," explained Destin Singleton, spokeswoman for corporate affairs at the Shell Oil Co. "The API is a good resource to give an industry perspective because it's not a company-specific issue. You have to consider that this is a very long-term business, and what's happening on a weekly or monthly basis is less of a concern."

Dave Gardner, media relations adviser for Exxon Mobil Corp., said for industrywide issues, such as gas prices, "we rely on API for general consumer education. It's nothing new, but, as we have in the past, we'll use our Op-Ed space - in national newspapers - to explain current gasoline price drivers to our customers."

Van Ryan has a couple of consultants monitoring blogs, but doesn't yet have a team supporting her. "There's a lot to learn here, and it's important to have an understanding of how bloggers interact with one another and what comments they're making," she said. "We'll have to see how this works."

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