What Big Donald can teach Big Energy

Chevron's GM of public affairs, Dave Samson, outlines what PR professionals can learn from the Trump election campaign and also provides a few tips on inclusive communications.

Chevron is investing in technology to remain one of the largest energy companies in the world.
Chevron is investing in technology to remain one of the largest energy companies in the world.

PRWeek: What lessons can PR pros learn from the way Donald Trump reaches out directly to his constituency via social media?

Samson: Whatever your political persuasion, you can learn from what happened. The Trump campaign tapped into this notion of not defining people by demographics, but more looking at them based on psychographics such as shared beliefs and interests and tapping into that – horizontal issues versus vertical demographic attributes.

Communicators and marketers tend to look at people using terms such as Baby Boomer or Millennial and we identify a whole set of attributes that we think define them. In reality, people are coming together much more in ecosystems or tribes based around shared beliefs or interests.

Give an example of that in action.

The Women’s Marches in Washington and cities around the world are a good example. The majority of participants were women, but there were men out there, young kids, and families coming together around women’s empowerment, gender equality, equal pay and a whole host of issues like that, not just the fact that they were women.

People who showed up at Donald Trump’s rallies also cut across multiple demographics. They certainly lean more heavily to certain media outlets and organizations but they took a lot of their cues from their neighbors, peers, and themselves.

We know from communications that people trust people like themselves more than they trust authority or political leaders. A lot of that was based on their community.

What is the value of direct messaging?

Donald Trump has upwards of 21 million Twitter followers. That’s more than the viewership of 60 Minutes, or the circulation of the LA Times, USA Today, The New York Times, and The Washington Post combined.

He was able to go out with a message in real time at any time he wanted in an unfiltered way. People can question the seriousness or content of some of those tweets and engagements, but he was pretty calculated about it.

People are coming together on different platforms. A certain set of folks might have more affinity for Fox News or MSNBC, so the platforms where they get their news may align more with their beliefs and interests. We can get caught up in our own echo chamber if we only interact with people who see and believe things in the same way we do.

How does that impact your work at Chevron?

In world where you have to earn the public’s trust to do business and operate you have to understand more than your own little eco system.

At Chevron, if I only engage people who support our business objectives 100% and don’t talk to people with legitimate questions about safety and the environment, in the long term I’m not going to engage with and have the trust of enough people to do business.

For Donald Trump, it was enough critical mass to get him elected, but he now represents all Americans and in the long term he’s got to broaden beyond that and show he’s delivering on the economy and go beyond the folks who voted for him.

Do you think Donald Trump needs to change his strategy?

I’m not really in a position to give the President advice, but the more inclusive and understanding you can be of multiple points of view and drive decisions and policies that reflect that is going to benefit whoever’s sitting in the White House.

Donald Trump is frustrated that a lot of people start with a negative viewpoint of him – is the energy industry in the same boat?

Most people start with a positive view of energy. All the public opinion polls show that well over two-thirds of the U.S. population supports the development of oil and natural gas. That doesn’t mean they don’t have legitimate questions about how and where it’s being done, the protocols in place to make sure it’s done responsibly.

There can sometimes be louder voices in the echo chamber and we think they speak for everybody, but I don’t think that’s true.

Do communicators need a more inclusive approach?

The challenge for communicators today is that we run the risk of overweighting our engagement to the digital and virtual world. There’s no substitute for relationships and direct engagement.

If we don’t engage the communities in which we operate and step beyond the fence line, we won’t retain the right and permission to operate. If we don’t engage employees face to face and have conversations and create participatory engagement, they’re not going to be aligned with the values and aims of the company and they’re not going to step forward and give discretionary effort. They want to be part of the process.

You can go down the stakeholder groups. Noone is going to continue to invest large sums of money in our company if they don’t get access to our leadership.

Whatever the stakeholder, direct engagement relationships are fundamental to what we do, and all the digital engagement is a way to leverage those engagements to create advocacy at scale, but it starts with direct engagement. You can’t build real trust virtually.

How does this affect the way Chevron engages environmental groups?

We engage with anybody that wants to sit down and have a rational conversation. When we did our We Agree campaign, we talked to supporters and critics and asked them ‘What do you expect from a company like Chevron?’

They said ‘We expect you to put the planet before profits’ – we said ‘We agree.’ ‘We expect you to invest in small businesses’ – ‘We agree with that too.’ There was a lot more common ground than there was divergence.

We’re at this interesting place in history where stakeholder engagement has gone from an era of interested stakeholders to the present state of stakeholder activism. Because of social platforms and transparency they can create critical mass and affect change.

But the future is one of two paths: going from stakeholder activism to stakeholder extremism or a greater moderation back to constructive engagement, which I hope is what happens. When no one sits down and tries to understand the other side’s concerns or engages in civil discourse and dialogue, the outcome is not good.

What is the future for the media?

Over time you’re going to see a resurgence of organizations that can leverage their brands. Media has lower approval ratings even than politicians, but I see this as an opportunity for trusted established brands to differentiate themselves from fake news. If I was in communications for a media outlet I would use this as an opportunity to establish it as a trusted source of news.

There’s a rush to be first, a decline in revenues, and reporters and editors are overstretched, so they don’t have the time and resources to do what they’ve done in the past, which leads to more mistakes.

I would invest in real fact checking, be balanced in their coverage and represent both points of view, fall where the facts take them.

How positive will the Trump administration be for business?

A lot of things are going to influence business. Is it going to be a more predictable and regulatory environment? Most businesses are advocates of free trade, so it’s too early to tell on some of those issues, but there’s a sentiment the new administration is more favorable to business.

Is less regulation a good thing?

If the regulations aren’t achieving the desired outcome then yes. Good companies are not anti-regulation. They want regulations that are reasonable and achieve the desired outcomes, such as safer working practices. No good company would be against those things.

[Problems come] when regulations don’t recognize all the progress that’s been made or the real cost to society. You need greater transparency, predictability and stability, but regulations are not inherently a bad thing - unless they are misused.

How will Chevron engage with the Trump administration?

He engages the business community and we engaged with both parties during the election campaigns and we will engage with the current administration, just like we’ve done in the past.

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