Oil industry is playing with fire by being silent

If last year's record profits against a backdrop of high gas prices hasn't exactly endeared big oil to US consumers, current prices at the pump and first-quarter profits may make the energy industry the most vilified in the US, and not just among consumers.

If last year's record profits against a backdrop of high gas prices hasn't exactly endeared big oil to US consumers, current prices at the pump and first-quarter profits may make the energy industry the most vilified in the US, and not just among consumers.

Nearly every industry is feeling the backlash - not only travel and shipping-focused businesses, but all companies that rely on them. The issue of gas prices is so heated, government officials are likely to intervene.

While consumers cringe as gas prices climb above $3 a gallon, earnings for oil makers are now rolling in. The third biggest oil producer, ConocoPhillips, for example, posted a 13% first quarter profit rise last week.

The oil industry is not the first to face this PR crisis. Several years ago, the pharma industry was in the hot seat, as rising drug costs - and stingier health insurance plans - led to articles on patients who were forced to choose between medications and food, or were importing pills from overseas.

But oil companies must learn from those industries that have already seen what happens when high prices couple with high profits to reach a tipping point.

It's time for the energy industry to launch a major educational push to explain to consumers why gas costs as much as it does, and what causes price fluctuations. It also needs to raise awareness of the R&D efforts companies are undertaking to reduce US oil dependence.

And it needs to work with third-party allies that can deliver the message to skeptical audiences.

The oil industry doesn't need expensive ads - they will only backfire, as consumers tend to believe that big marketing budgets drive up prices. Instead, thought leadership and grassroots tactics must drive this effort.

If the oil industry waits to act, other parties will tell its story. When the issue is as complicated as gas prices, misinformation will fester. And oil companies will bear the bulk of the blame.

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