As its rivals step back, Chevron stands out by welcoming dialogue on industrywide issuesThe oil industry is not exactly the toast of the town these days when it comes to public opinion. Record profits in 2005, spurred partly by hurricanes and rough geopolitical conditions, prompted calls from Congress and average Americans for extra "windfall" taxes on the industry.
While some prominent companies took this as a sign to retreat into their shells, Chevron has taken a different route. Since last summer, the company - the second-largest US oil company, after ExxonMobil - has been pushing a thought-leadership campaign entitled "Will You Join Us" to bring a wide array of stakeholders into the discussion about the oil industry's future.
The campaign is not designed to overtly tout Chevron's environmental or renewable energy programs. Instead, it seeks to establish a two-way dialogue that can push the conversation about the hard realities of the industry forward. Such an approach was made easier by Chevron's tightly woven in-house communications team.
"We're in the enviable position of really having an integrated approach," says Dave Samson, GM of public affairs. "We're lucky [to] have the responsibility [in the communications department]... for corporate branding and advertising, and we link it tightly with all our reputation efforts."
That approach meant that when the campaign rolled out last July, it encompassed not only a global, multi-channel ad campaign, but also a heavy dose of media relations, executive positioning, and even special events directly related to the core message. The original idea came out of a series of focus groups, which found consumers related more to "real issues" campaigns.
"This dialogue is occurring in the marketplace among a number of our key constituents," Samson notes. "The only people who aren't actively engaged in that dialogue are, largely, the energy companies."
Chevron established willyoujoinus.com, a Web site that serves as the centerpiece of
its effort. It features fact sheets about issues affecting the industry at large, such as supply and demand, population growth, geopolitics, and the environment, as well as a message board on which the actual dialogue plays out. So far, more than 3,000 people have registered to comment and get updates on the issues from Chevron.
"It's an engagement campaign. It's not a one-way conversation," says Russ Yarrow, manager of external relations. "We're reaching out to stakeholders, [which] we define as those groups that can help us do business or keep us from doing business."
That includes a broad range of influencers, from NGOs to international government figures to the business community at large, Yarrow says. A two-way communications campaign is inherently harder to control than traditional one-way PR, but Chevron's team felt that it was the only true option in the current climate.
"Historically, you couldn't differentiate big energy companies," he says. "Their advertising was very similar. So this was a chance for us to break out and differentiate ourselves."
"Will You Join Us" kicked off soon after Chevron had rebranded itself from ChevronTexaco. Helen Clark, manager of corporate brand and reputation, says the renaming presented the perfect opportunity to launch a new and mold-breaking campaign. Market research helped shape every detail of the rollout, down to a concentration on ads in airports, where Chevron stakeholders spend a great deal of time. The company also spread the word through viral marketing at high-profile energy conferences in an attempt to drive truly influential people to the Web site.
"These techniques are fairly common in the [tech and consumer] space," says Yarrow. "But we're applying that to the thought-leadership stuff we're doing."
"Oil companies' traditional ad campaigns have always been really weak," says Chris Palmeri, a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek who has covered Chevron. "They're faced with a fundamental problem: Gasoline is pretty much all the same, and everybody knows it."
Palmeri says "Will You Join Us" helps Chevron look concerned, it deflects public criticism, and it could even help move favorable legislation forward by sparking a public discussion on energy policy.
Tony Silva, a VP at ICF Consulting, a firm with extensive energy industry expertise, believes Chevron-type campaigns could be the wave of the future. "This forthright communication... is one that we probably will see more of, especially in oil and gas," he says. "Where some items [like CSR and the environment] have been buried on Web pages of oil and gas companies, we're starting to see them elevated higher up. It's of very strong interest for their consumers."
Samson admits that no single campaign can "shift or direct public policy overnight." But in the long run, Chevron hopes providing a platform for people to express a voice will pay off with better ideas.
"It's been a very sophisticated, energetic conversation," Samson says. "We've, in effect, created this community of people who are passionate about these issues."
San Ramon, CA
REVENUES AND LATEST EARNINGS:
$184 billion for fiscal year '05; Q4 net income for fiscal year '05 was $4.14 billion, compared with $13.3 billion for Q4 '04
ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips
KEY TRADE PUBLICATIONS:
Oil Daily, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, Platts Oilgram News
GM of public affairs, Dave Samson
Manager of corporate brand and
reputation, Helen Clark
Manager of external relations,
MARKETING SERVICES AGENCIES:
PR: No AOR, many firms used
on project basis
Advertising: Young & Rubicam