Energy Roundtable: Effective storytelling in a scrutinized environment

From gas prices to well-publicized crises, the energy sector always has a captive audience because of its indisputable impact on everyday lives. Industry leaders gathered in New York City for this Chevron-hosted roundtable to discuss the keys to effective storytelling in such a heavily scrutinized environment.

Participants (in alpha order)
-Shane Boyd, VP of corporate communications, Devon Energy
-Rebecca Lowell Edwards, CCO, GE Oil & Gas
-Michael Kehs, EVP, global energy practice, Hill+Knowlton Strategies
-Dick Mullinax, global head, energy practice, FleishmanHillard
-Scott Peterson, SVP of communications, Nuclear Energy Institute
-Linda Rozett, VP of communications, American Petroleum Institute
-Dave Samson, GM of public affairs, Chevron
-Liz Sidoti, head of US communications, BP
-Karen Tripp, VP of communications and public affairs, Phillips 66
-Matt Wagner, chair, US public affairs, Edelman

Greater understanding
Steve Barrett (PRWeek):
The energy sector touches everyone, but it is a complex industry few fully grasp. How do communicators in the space facilitate broader comprehension?

Dave Samson (Chevron): There is a tremendous gap between rhetoric and reality. Our industry deals with a lot of the rhetoric driven by the US and Western Europe, where people have the luxury of access. However, if you look around the world, the view on energy is not universally negative. In some regions, people really embrace it and see its value.

If you step back ten years, we did a bad job telling our story. People didn’t know we were the world’s largest industry, didn’t understand energy’s ubiquity in their lives, and viewed it through a very narrow lens, which was largely the price at the pump. Over the last decade, though, this sector has begun to engage much more actively. Communicators in this industry must go out and talk about what we do – and not be apologetic about it.

Linda Rozett (American Petroleum Institute [API]): As a trade association, we’re not talking about a specific brand, but rather the issue of energy. I see the API’s role as a content creator. Our job is to identify, create, and distribute it. From that perspective, we face the same challenges as media entities. It’s no longer just a couple of reporters to focus on. There are thought leaders everywhere with whom we must communicate.

My goal is to keep the conversation away from a partisan divide. I’m talking to people in the broad middle who are more receptive to a fact-based dialogue about the US energy industry and what our country’s needs are going forward.

Scott Peterson (Nuclear Energy Institute [NEI]): We are dealing with a lot of thought leaders who don’t have the years of experience in the sector. That only heightens the importance of content development and execution. We must use data to understand where people go for content. Fortunately, we have tools we didn’t possess even five years ago to communicate directly.

Your content has to be relevant to the news cycle, but must also touch on issues your audience cares about. You must advance those issues as much as possible and offer content people are looking for in advance of when they need it.

Karen Tripp (Phillips 66): Establishing the credibility that will position your content in the strongest possible light is of paramount importance. This is where third-party subject-matter experts come in. It could be a leader from a major brand in another sector that works with you or perhaps the chair at a major university, but those individuals help give you the credibility to overcome negative perceptions.

Shane Boyd (Devon Energy): Much of the dialogue in this sector takes place one-on-one – and a lot of it isn’t coming from PR people. It’s folks on the ground – in the trucks or on job sites – that people will come up to and ask questions. These folks are ready to educate everyday people about the industry. It is truly our most powerful tool.

Michael Kehs (Hill+Knowlton Strategies): We must empower those employees to go forth in their own spheres of influence, talk to people, and explain what we actually do.

Liz Sidoti (BP): In the past, this industry has been reticent to engage and tell its story. We are currently in an environment where many are taking advantage of a public uneducated about our issues because of that reticence. Pair that with a 24-7 media cycle and an increase in reporters who are not as educated on our sector as the veterans who used to populate the space and our challenge is enormous. On top of that, we have been painted as big oil for so long.

It is imperative businesses in our industry become content creators, too, and use data-driven messaging to boost credibility.

Barrett (PRWeek): How has the BP narrative changed from the recent doomsday scenario involving Deepwater Horizon?

Sidoti (BP): We’re engaging more than ever. If we don’t tell our story, others will. But the key is using fact-based messaging. Quite honestly, that’s a model for the entire industry. It’s the only way to tell our story.

Rozett (API): For an industry as large as ours, there will always be distrust, but that doesn’t mean we have no voice in the debate. We do. Over the last decade, the industry has stepped up and become much less fearful of its own bad press.

Samson (Chevron): When I came to Chevron in 2004, I didn’t have to convince leadership about the need to engage more proactively. I had to convince my communications peers to do so because they kept saying, "We tried to do that in the ‘80s and it didn’t work." That was a big hurdle.

Dick Mullinax (FleishmanHillard): People tend to interpret new information to reinforce what they already believe. So when you’re dealing with activists, your challenge is intensified because they have a particularly strong point of view and you have to re-convince them. It’s doable, but the burden is much higher on you.

Matt Wagner (Edelman): This is such a fact-based and engineer-driven industry, the challenge is speaking in human terms and putting a face on a story. Energy companies have learned they need to show, not just tell. They need to build stories, not just push studies. It goes back to engagement and content, but it needs to be made personal for people so they understand the issues, as opposed to just being told they should think about them.

Mullinax (Fleishman): The standards companies have are much greater than the pressure groups that just tell stories and nobody is really fact-checking them. However, if a company makes a misstatement or miscalculation, there’s a bigger penalty to pay.

Barrett (PRWeek): Liz, please speak to the strategy of having Geoff Morrell, SVP of US comms and external affairs, go on 60 Minutes last year.

Sidoti (BP): This was part of an overarching strategy to not only engage more, but also to use as many channels as we can in an effective way. A 60 Minutes interview made sense within that.

Since then, especially now right around the five-year mark since the oil spill, we’ve found we have to judge media outlets and reporters as we make those decisions. We make our choices on a case-by-case basis, assessing reach, credibility, and a host of factors. And it’s not a matter of whether or not to engage, but to what level. We’re engaged across the board, but not everyone will get that interview with Geoff or CEO Bob Dudley.

Of course, it’s not just media interviews. It’s a combination of public appearances and what we do on our earned, owned, and paid channels. And, much like Geoff, our employees are our best advocates. We arm them with the facts and resources they need to talk to family members at a time when there will be some focus on us.

Reliable source

Matthew Wald, who late last year completed a 37-year stint at The New York Times covering the energy sector, has seen the industry itself – as well as perceptions about it – evolve more than almost anyone. From fracking to public opinion, below are some key takeaways from his conversation with PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett:

•Capturing the public sentiment about the energy sector
In the public mind, energy is driven in alternation by fear of gasoline prices and fear of pollution. The former is much stronger. We have a bipolar, manic-depressive market, and at the moment we’re manic. But with another couple of Katrinas, the national debate will change.

•The US’ rise to energy self-dependency
If the US becomes self-sufficient and as politics in the US shift for a variety of reasons, we could have an energy policy that’s essentially more isolationist.

•Challenges in telling the fracking story
It can’t be as apocalyptic as some people say it is. There’s a lot of hyperbole attached to a lot of public conversation about all forms of extraction and all forms of energy. Eventually, some of the debate over fracking must be influenced by facts. And there will be facts going forward.

•Keys to effective communication about the energy sector
I often found the people down in the trenches to be the most helpful in understanding what was going on, why things happened the way they did, how they hoped to make things happen differently, and so on. Generally, companies willing to talk about their technologies often have very interesting stories.

Click here for more thoughts from Ward on where wind and solar fit into the energy conversation, as well as his prediction for the biggest sector story in the next decade.

Tales of technology
Rebecca Lowell Edwards (GE Oil & Gas):
People don’t automatically think about GE in oil and energy, which is a great opportunity for us. As a tech provider, a lot of people – activists, concerned citizens, or even our customers – don’t expect our voice to be out there boldly and actively, but in this environment it’s exactly what is needed.

Technology is going to play a huge role is this sector. Lucky for us, GE engineers are committed to a lot of those technological solutions and they happen to be people who live in the same neighborhoods as those concerned citizens and activists. These individuals are perfect to tell a compelling, yet simple story about the problems they see, the solutions they’re actively engaged in, and what the outcomes look like. Basically, we can set a whole new conversation and introduce a set of aspirational ideas for what’s possible.

Wagner (Edelman): This industry doesn’t give itself enough credit for the technology it brings to the market. Energy is not a sunset industry. It’s a sunrise industry.

Rozett (API): It is so important to create an atmosphere in this country where there is a middle conversation. There must be a place where people can come forward and talk about the technologies they’re developing for oil and natural gas development and not be seen as somehow aiding the evil empire. People can’t be afraid to step forward. The dialogue should not be so polarized.

Boyd (Devon): Everyone is a heavy user of energy. Consumers demand and need our products. With that, everyone who works in the sector, including communicators, have a lot of enthusiasm and pride in what we do. We owe it to our communities and stakeholders to help them understand what we’re doing, answer their questions, and be accountable when there’s a misunderstanding.

Peterson (NEI): That highlights the complexity of our jobs. On one hand, we have a consumer audience that expects reliable, cheap energy that will drive everyday conveniences. Then there’s the other audience focused on what will drive the industry to the future – the technology, the policy, the behind-the-scenes details consumers won’t ever see. It’s a challenge to set your communications agenda and use all your platforms to mesh those messages.

Samson (Chevron): No industry uses more advanced forms of technology than the energy sector, whether it’s robotics, imaging, moleculars, and so on. That’s the story to tell. And as technology evolves, we can engage a whole other group of stakeholders the energy industry historically hasn’t.

Edwards (GE): Companies in this sector so often do great projects together. We can get a little bit bolder telling those stories hand-in-hand. It also brings a bit more humility to the conversation.

We also need to transform our functions from being so production oriented and press release generating to focus more on empowering others to tell the industry’s stories. Communicators need not be the only ones telling them.

Tripp (Phillips 66): Community engagement is so crucial, particularly well ahead of any activity you conduct. It’s important to focus on the good things that will come to the communities you work in because some of your strongest advocates are there. It’s in our best interests to make sure our communities are resilient.

Mullinax (Fleishman): As communicators in this space, we must never forget the high purpose the energy industry serves, which sometimes gets lost under the weight of criticism that generates a bit of hopelessness about the futility of getting such a complex message through. I find it useful to clearly state that high purpose in a way that makes sense for the business.

Wagner (Edelman): Talking about the broader societal benefits it brings is where the energy sector struggles. But since no industry provides more benefits than energy, this is a particularly poignant concept.

Edwards (GE): Some of the confidence we’ve developed in telling our story and being more active has come from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where the local content rules mean we have to combine commercial with social interests. We bring back the learning of what it takes to engage in a 360-degree manner with stakeholders around those two drivers. In turn, we can tell a story in North Dakota about our last mile fueling solutions with the same construct of commercial and social being united and driving outcomes.

Kehs (H+K): We are not putting out a STEM curriculum to the public. We have to show people we care before they do. Every week, a city the size of Dallas is being added to the world’s population. Every one of these people deserves the benefits of affordable, reliable energy that could empower their own brilliant creations and their own better life. That is a high purpose. Those human stories just might offset some of the more horrific theories about what could happen under the worst circumstances for our industry.

Samson (Chevron): Amid all this, the importance of listening must be underscored. We must understand people’s concerns. If we don’t listen they will never want to hear our story. Sitting across the table from somebody is often the best way to find common ground.

United front
Barrett (PRWeek):
How important is it to work together to tell a mutual industry story versus looking out for the interests of your own organization?

Tripp (Phillips 66): The major consideration is where to put resources based upon the need at the moment. There are certainly times when it might be very important to have a national statement about the importance of oil, natural gas, exporting, whatever it happens to be. That’s where all industry entities must come together. But when in the midst of a huge CapEx [capital expenditure] project, you have to be ready to switch resources there. But this is truly an industry where all audiences have a stake in it, so the need to work together is certainly high.

Rozett (API): Companies in the energy sector are unique in their commitment to being very competitive with each other on a business level, but they understand the need to stand together for a common cause.

And this carries over to the associations, too. At the beginning of this year, we put out our State of American Energy report. Other trade groups submitted content for it over which they had control. And it wasn’t pay to play.

The world needs more energy of all types. It’s not a zero-sum game. The better everyone understands that, the better we’ll be in terms of our public policy and the direction we take as a country. And that’s something all entities in the energy sector share. I don’t need to wave a flag to get people to not think about nuclear, wind, or solar. Those are not my opponents.

Peterson (NEI): There is tremendous value in energy diversity. That is clearly understood by everyone in the industry and it fosters sharing among companies in competitive markets around issues such as safety and best practices. Such a focus has been longstanding in nuclear energy, but it’s very apparent in other parts of the sector, too. It’s job number one for everyone in energy and all entities work together to make sure we’re moving in that direction. I don’t know if it’s unique to the energy sector, but it’s certainly a calling card for it.

Edwards (GE): An issue such as developing the talent pipeline is a perfect example of being successful having it both ways. Competing entities certainly work together to attract more young people to the sector. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have a bigger, better talent pool and the improved mindshare that comes with it. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t compete vigorously with other companies for that talent. But if the talent pool is expanded, everybody gains.

Samson (Chevron): The reality in our industry is that we partner on lots of things and have been doing so for decades on numerous projects that are huge in complexity and cost. Seldom will you find a major project anywhere with a single company driving it.

Kehs (H+K): The energy industry has to think decades, if not half-centuries, down the road and that’s something most consumer audiences struggle to get their head around. This is a sector willing to make those types of investments in capital expenditures. Similar investments must be made in communications expenditures so we can take that long view. The facts will win out, but only if we support them vigorously and consistently.

Handling the pressure
Steve Barrett (PRWeek):
There were a couple of high-profile stories last year led by pressure groups and media outlets. For example, Greenpeace leaking Edelman’s strategy documents on TransCanada to a newspaper. How do you respond in such situations?

Wagner (Edelman): You must be willing to engage and have a rational conversation with folks. You have to point out that some people aren’t interested in that and let people decide for themselves what that means in terms of their argument.

Our key job is to listen to people. It’s also our job to recognize those who simply won’t listen to us. We can move the conversation and communication to those willing to engage in constructive debate. And frankly, this same philosophy applies to dealing with media in such cases.

Peterson (NEI): The Greenpeace story generated attention because it was TransCanada working with Edelman. However, you rarely see a reporter generate a story about a pressure group using a PR firm. Such relationships absolutely exist, but you never see them reported.

Rozett (API): We get a lot of pressure from groups who are shocked we spend money to reach the public on our issues. And the effectiveness of those efforts is also questioned.

They are effective, but advertising is just one engagement channel, albeit an important one. I’m not ashamed of it and there is nothing nefarious about it. It is part of an overall communications effort the industry is supporting in order to engage in a broad public conversation about energy.

Mullinax (Fleishman): It’s interesting that the same reporters or groups who are critical about ads or any type of communication will only be more critical if an energy company does not participate at all in a public conversation. Pressure groups will criticize no matter what. The opportunity is to maintain your outreach efforts.

Rozett (API): Associations have a particular role, though, in that we are not publicly traded companies. We don’t have the same kind of pressure points as an individual company. Associations have the chance to stand up for the industry and tell the story.

Samson (Chevron): The numerous channels now available certainly give companies a chance to create share of voice. We have a publication in Richmond, California, called The Richmond Standard, along with a community-based website. There is a section called Chevron Speaks. It’s clear we pay for it. We have a reporter covering community news and it has more readership in Richmond than the San Francisco Chronicle or the Contra Costa Times.

We know this based on site traffic and the number of stories we break that the mainstream press picks up. And it’s not the stories we break on our industry, but on the community. Anybody can create relevant content today if they understand the people they’re trying to reach.

Boyd (Devon): When it comes to our organizations doing the right thing or being advocates for doing the right thing, it would be indefensible for us not to.

Peterson (NEI): Energy companies have the right tools to reach out to the people in those communities, whether through community action panels, open houses, or simply using their employees as ambassadors.

Every two years, we survey residents within 10 miles of every nuclear plant in America. We look to measure favorability, safety, and reputation. The company representatives are also members of these communities. They live there. Their kids play Little League with neighbors’ kids. They go to the same churches. It’s an ongoing personal relationship. To get feedback based on that is so useful. 

Click here for more from this roundtable, including our experts’ thoughts on how energy will impact the 2016 presidential campaign and a look back at comms lessons still being learned from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

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