From Passive Endorsement to Active Engagement

CAPP and industry aim to turn up the volume by inspiring supporters to stand up for Canada's oil and gas industry. 

By: Clara Stanfield 

Originally posted in CAPP's April 2015 issue of their Context Magazine. Original article can be found here: 

If you've ever stood in line for your morning coffee, listening to people behind you criticize the energy industry, and debated whether or not to say something, Jeff Gaulin says you're not alone. 

Gaulin, vice-president of communications at CAPP, understands the strong social forces working against supporters of Canada's oil and gas industry to speak up publically. "It's a three-to-one ratio of those willing to to speak out against the industry to those willing to speak up for it," he says. "And we really need to change that."

Those numbers are a bit surprising when you consider that among the general population, polls typically show broad support for the industry -- routinely 40 per cent support versus 25 per cent opposition. 

"We want to connect Canadians to our industry in a way they haven't been connected before. It's about personalizing and humanizing the industry."

At the heart of the issue is the fact that environmental NGO's have dominated the public discourse on energy with very successful, emotionally appealing campaigns that have created an "us versus them" dynamic, where "us" is on the side of the good guys and "them" is... well not. 

How did it get like this? Gaulin thinks one reason may be the nature of the business itself. "We've been a remote industry," he says. "Physically, in the sense that the oil sands just where they are, and few get to actually see them.

"But we've been intellectually remote too," Gaulin adds. "We operate with an engineering mindset, and for too long we've had the idea that the facts will set us free; that people would look at facts and realize that we're doing a good job, that we're acting responsibly. But people don't always make their decisions on facts alone. They rely on values and feelings. This is a social issue."

This appeal to values and emotion, he says, has made the anti-oil and gas movement very successful. "They are very good at mobilizing the public around a social issue, and that is our simple, yet difficult task -- to mobilize Canadians around this issue in a different way, starting with our own people."

Deryck Spooner agrees: "Whether supporting an environmental message or an industry message, the strategy and tactics are the same." Spooner is senior director for external mobilization for the American Petroleum Institute (API). He's seen both sides of the debate, having worked previously on campaigns for the Nature Conservancy. Spooners adds, "What we need to keep in mind is many of the organizations opposing pipeline and infrastructure projects are not true environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy. Some are extremists who will use any tactic to try and stop industry, including spreading misinformation to capture the emotions of the public." The challenge for for industry, says Spooner, is to not only counter this with facts -- but far more critically, to get the facts to and inspire action among the people the public trusts. 

Trust Begins at Home

"We work in an industry that many people love to hate," says Justin Reti, senior communications advisor with the internal communications team at Cenovus Energy. "It's not easy to declare your support for it."

Cenovus, known for its external efforts to change the public dialogue, launched an internal initiative starting in October, 2013. "On the internal front we looked for ways to help our staff and give them the information and tools they needed to start positive energy conversations," says Reti. 

The company took a multi-pronged approach with (among many other things) wearable pride in the form of "I <3 Oil" t-shirts, toques, and ear-warming headbands; a "Speak Up" package with tips, examples and industry facts all designed to encourage (or support) conversations with friends and family; and an update to the company's social media guidelines designed to encourage greater participation in online discussions debates. 

Cenovus' effort to nurture personal engagement among employees aligns with a model of engagement Gaulin foresees for the entire industry. 

"It's one thing for industry to try and sway people through television commercials and news media sound bites of CEO's talking about company sustainability initiatives. Unfortunately, that only takes us so far," says Gaulin. 

It's a question of trust. "Who are the most trusted sources of information for most people?" he asks. "It's friends, family, neighbours -- these are the people we believe the most. So this conversation has to start with within our industry, within CAPP, and our member companies and outward from there." 

Spooner's experiences with API and the Nature Conservancy support this approach. "People need to be able to have a conversation with individuals they trust who can alleviate their concerns. That can only happen if a company gets on the ground, reaches out to, educates and mobilizes local leaders and citizens to support the project. This is especially critical now that those opposing the industry are increasingly engaging in local, grassroots campaigns." 

Spooner adds, "A personal conversation will always trump a piece of mail, and information from a trusted friend or leader will always trump information from a stranger. We have to build allies that can deliver a personal local message."

The Importance of Social Cover

Reti says Cenovus employees embraced the company's approach, and that had a spillover effect to the wider community. "What we saw was the more our staff wore the t-shirts, the more external requests we got for them. When we put the toques out, they went quickly!"

Which is great, but the idea is not simply to have people wear a cool shirt. It is more about how wearing a cool shirt might start a conversation, and while Reti has seen that happen, he acknowledges that not everyone is up to it right away, and that's okay. 

"Based on their individual comfort level, people could use these things how they wanted," says Reti. If it was just wearing the t-shirt, that's fine. Or wearing the t-shirt while giving a speech, that's fine too. "The idea was simply to give staff a way to show their pride in their company and their industry and arm them with a variety of tools to help them do that."

Gaulin agrees that people need to move at their own pace and comfort level. "We're not asking people to take to the streets," he says. "But we do hope that people who support this industry will start to feel more comfortable about expressing their support. For that to happen more consistently, we need to provide social cover: that is: we need to make it socially acceptable to speak up."

You can point to almost any social movement to see how social cover works -- seatbelts, smoking, impaired driving and yes, even the anti-oil and gas campaign. Most of these movements started small, with a motivated and vocal core group of individuals facing a larger social unwillingness or indifference to change. But as the group talked, provided evidence to support the validity of their position and appealed to people's emotional ideals and community values, this gave legitimacy for others to speak up. 

CAPP and industry;s engagement strategy aims to start things rolling by providing tools and resources to help its strongest supporters -- for example, employees of member companies and the oil and gas supply chain, as well as members of the trade unions, chambers of commerce and passionate individuals who believe in Canada's oil and gas industry -- to start engaging publicly and to tell their own stories. 

Says Gaulin, "We want to connect Canadians to our industry in a way they haven't been connected before. It's about personalizing and humanizing the industry."

From Endorsement to Action

CAPP's engagement strategy is evolving. For now, Gaulin says, there's a range of little things people can start to do, from writing letters to editors, speaking to social clubs and networks, writing to MP's, maybe even speaking up in that coffee lineup. "All those little things add up," he says. 

Meanwhile, CAPP is building toward a full-blown grassroots outreach program that will begin to take shape in coming months. The goal will be to shift industry supporters from a mode of passive endorsement to active engagement. CAPP's manager of campaigns, Christina Pilarski identifies three key stages to this effort that are in the works: identification, recruitment, and activation. 

"We know the support is out there," Pilarski says. "We've made some good progress identifying that support. The next step is to build relationships with our supporters, and inspire them to become visible and vocal championships for industry."

Central to this relationship-building effort is getting supporters to sign up to the Canada's Energy Citizens Campaign (, a growing online community where members can share content, participate in social media conversations and disseminate information on events and other advocacy-style initiatives. CAPP will also launch a regionally targeted ad campaign in May that directly engages Canadians in support of the energy conversation. 

In parallel are planned recruitment drives in key communities involving speeches, social events, town halls and community cafes. CAPP staff, with the support of members, will be on the ground to provide the personal touch. 

"Planned mobilization initiatives include letter-writing campaigns, lawn signs, events and rallies," adds Brad Tennant, CAPP Alberta campaign advisor. "Supporters will be given the tools and resources to spread the word, including information pieces, and promotional material such as buttons, bumper stickers and t-shirts. We're even developing a 'campaign-in-a-box' toolkit for people willing to become champions for industry within their own local community."

The key, notes Pilarski, will be to foster "sustained engagement." "If we can create an environment where people feel like they're part of something larger and that they have an opportunity to make a difference, we should start to see real groundswell of visible support."

A Balanced Conversation

"I think it's important we are assertive and clear, but respectful," says CAPP president and CEO Tim McMillan. "That's what Canadians expect. Those who shout, intimidate and bully eventually lose effectiveness." Indeed, the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that public trust in environmental NGO's wanes when they become more extreme. It's a lesson the oil and natural gas industry takes to heart as it emphasizes fostering balanced, honest, and solutions-orientated conversations. 

"We're not trying to build an army of radicals," notes Gaulin. "And it's not about dispensing with the work we've done before. There still needs to be an emphasis on energy literacy and communicating the facts on how we're a world class industry when it comes to responsible development. 

"We just need to shift the dial so that people can connect meaningfully, personally and emotionally with these facts."

Is it possible for the oil and natural gas industry to make this shift happen? Gaulin believes it is, but that it's going to take commitment, patience, and creativity. "We didn't get into this situation overnight and we won't get out of it overnight either," he says about the negative perceptions and misinformation that dominate many public discussions about Canada's oil and gas sector. 

"We've got a big hill to climb. What we're really about is fundamentally changing the way the industry connects with Canadians, and we have got to get this right so that public policy is supported," says Gaulin. 

"At CAPP, we're taking a systematic approach, starting with supporters," he adds. "We want those people to know three things: one -- you're not wrong, two -- you're not alone, and three -- you can play a role. Every small act counts." 


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