Behind the Eight Ball & Fighting an Uphill Battle

By: Lucas Silva, CAGC

Article originally featured in the summer 2015 edition of their quarterly magazine, The Source. Article can be retrieved here: https://www.cagc.ca/resources/source_magazine/1502/

In recent years, the oil and gas industry has seen a number of negative situations play out, partly due to a lack of effective communication within the public body. Keystone XL, Energy East, Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan expansion have all been, directly or indirectly, negatively affected by public opinion, whether justified, or not.

These are just a few examples of projects that have been affected, or even halted, but negative public opinion can be felt throughout the industry, hurting its ability to take full advantage of the opportunities in place.

This has forced the industry to change its approach to communicating with the public. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) has introduced a brand new approach, calling it: From Passive Endorsement to Active Engagement, where they’re essentially trying to reach individuals at a personal, emotional, and grassroots level in order to create unprompted supporters for the industry.

Their goal, in essence, is to mobilize people and create positive public influence for the entire industry, and to humanize the industry. For years, it’s been the opposite; and CAPP is leading the way in trying to change that.

Cenovus has also undergone a recent shift, but instead of externally trying to affect people first, their goal is to create ambassadors from within their own company. With that, their goal is to have those people positively affecting those in their inner circle, which will have an indirect impact on public consensus in the long term.

These types of shifts are being seen more and more from industry, and while it’s a good start, they’re behind the eight ball. ENGO’s and various environmental groups have been reaching individuals at this emotional and personal level for quite some time. They’ve been able to not only convince members of the public to support the environmental opposition, but have those members become unwavering radicals in some cases.

While the opposition was creating an army of support by playing on people’s emotions, having real conversations, and putting a face to the message, the industry was hiding behind reams of lawyers, public relations representatives, and advertisements, failing to reach people at the level they’re trying to reach them now.

This has put them behind the eight ball, and created distrust among the public. In an Alberta Oil Magazine exclusive, called The National Survey on Energy Literacy released in early February, they polled individuals across Canada on a number of energy related topics, including trust issues.

The question was posed as “Please select which group or groups you believe to be credible and trustworthy when it comes to providing information on each of the following areas:” The areas in question were Oil Sands Development, Clean Energy in Canada, and Carbon Emissions. For the three areas, oil and gas companies and industry groups received rates of 32%, 19.3%, and 21.2%. Environmental groups received rates of 28.5%, 37.7% and 34.7%. Clearly, there isn’t just an issue with trust for the industry, but there’s the added issue of environmental groups receiving more trust in two of the three areas. This is a significant problem, as these environmental groups often use fallacy, as opposed to facts to sway public opinion.

This goes to show that ‘fact pushing’ and ‘economy benefit’ angles aren’t the only methods that need to be used by industry, because they haven’t been proven to be effective.

The industry is shifting towards an approach that mimics organizations like Greenpeace, but they seem to always be once step behind. These new efforts are an attempt at mobilizing people to create a change; create some trust; and create positive public discourse. The industry has all the resources: the funds, the information, the facts, the power, to be able to make a stronger impact on public consensus, and they’re finally doing what it takes to reach people and make a difference.

However, with all of that being said, this is constantly an uphill battle for industry. Not only due to their own fault, but the industry simply can’t play the same game as the environmental groups, who often use extreme measures to gain support and sway public trust.

It’s often suggested that industry “needs to take their gloves off.” To an extent, that could be effective, but the industry can’t lie or make up information, they can’t pull off public stunts in order to gain attention, and putting a target on their back won’t help.

Environmental groups attempt to put a target on industry’s back, that’s how they get media attention, and ultimately broadcast their message to a larger audience. They can lie, cheat and do whatever they can to gain this kind of coverage.

It’s a different game; they play by different rules, and quite frankly, the opposition makes their own and don’t always follow them.

When it comes to mainstream media coverage, it’s also a difficult area for industry. Among the biggest stories regarding the industry, are those where they’re usually shown through a negative lens. Environmental disasters, massive corporate layoffs, and anti-oil and gas protests are some examples. The media is going to show what’s popular, and as long as people will tune in, it’s not going to change.

The good news, the successes, and the positive impact of the industry is rarely seen on mainstream media. Media thrives on the “David taking down Goliath” sequence when organizations attack large corporations, and the “us versus the world” attitude that many of the ENGO’s use. The same could be said for engaging and negotiating with Aboriginal communities.

In an article for the Daily Oil Bulletin written by James Mahony on April 21st, he summed up the coverage of these negotiations:
The belief that Canada's First Nations usually prevail in this country's courts, often at the expense of government and industry, is widespread but mistaken, according to a lawyer in aboriginal law.
“What you often hear said is that government and industry always lose, and First Nations always win,’ said Keith Bergner, a partner at law firm Lawson Lundell, LP. “But the truth is more nuanced than the media might lead you to believe.”
Media is an inconsistent variable that doesn’t offer much opportunity for control within the communications battle between industry and the opposition. What’s popular within the public body will always come first when the media is calling. What’s popular can somewhat be controlled, or affected, by either industry or the opposition, but as of now, the industry isn’t close to making that popularity a positive angle for itself.

As explained above in the DOB article, this causes reality to be skewed, often in favour of the opposition. Later in the article, Mahony continues the same thought:
By and large, he said, the court decisions that are getting the most airplay in Canada are those, where government “takes a hit” and a First Nation litigant is successful. Yet, the decisions getting much less coverage by media across the country are those in which a First Nation loses and the government prevails.
This poses an interesting problem for industry, and reversing the trend will be difficult. It starts by changing people’s mindsets, and that only begins when you start to communicate on a personal level like CAPP and some companies have started to do. However, the process of reversing tactics won’t happen quickly.

How does industry work around this disadvantage?

The aforementioned shift in communications is obviously a good start, but the industry as a whole, needs to embrace this shift. For far too long, oil and gas employees have been told to stay off social media, stay out of trouble, and keep quiet. This needs to change, and needs to be a wholesale change.

The internet gives the ability to publish anything at any time, all the time, on a number of different platforms. What the industry needs to collectively do, is use this to their advantage and support the good the good news stories, criticize the negative mistruths, and spread positive messages about the industry. 

Of course, this must be done in a smart and responsible manner. Staying silent has hurt the industry.

An example of the type of communication and online presence that needs to be adopted by the entire industry can be seen in Cody Battershill. He’s become a self-made oil sands advocate, garnering nearly 12,000 Twitter followers while promoting the industry, spreading energy facts, and challenging environmental activists. 

He’s creating an educated conversation and his work with organizations such as Canada Action, and Oil Sands Action have created a movement within in industry; however, Battershill sits outside the industry, and the hope is that his work can lead to change within it, but that’s hardly a guarantee.

A scenario within seismic that’s playing out right now that acts as a good example of the problems previously mentioned, is what’s going on in Clyde River.

By doing a very quick online and social media search, I found that there’s next to nothing in terms of support for the National Energy Board’s (NEB) decision to approve the land for marine seismic activity.

Almost everything, including both news articles and social media posts, is in favour of the federal government reversing the decision. When it’s suggested that industry is losing the battle, this is a terrific example of that.

The news articles, as explained previously, are for the most part an uncontrollable variable in this scenario, but the fact that there was no support in the massive online world is alarming. For anyone curious about the case, the only thing they’ll find is photos of protests, the town’s mayor fighting for the reversal of the decision, and environmental parties doing the same.

Clearly, for the original decision to be approved, there has to be substantial evidence, or some sort of scientific claim that would suggest that marine life won’t be greatly affected by the seismic activity. A CBC reporter who live tweeted the hearing on Monday, and one his tweets read that the Petroleum Geo-Services (PGS) lawyer said it’s not for court to determine the soundness of the scientific reports used in the NEB decision. 

So, clearly, they used scientific based evidence in order to get the original decision in their favour, but where is all that information? Why isn’t anyone from industry putting that science in a public forum? The argument can be made that facts and evidence won’t win over supporters, but doing so in a manner that meets people on a personal or emotional level could have a huge impact.

At the very least, this information should be made accessible for the public. If not, it looks suspicious, as if the industry is hiding something, or as if they’re withholding information for self-serving reasons.

Furthermore, in an article for CBC, a PGS spokesperson was interviewed and explained the effect on animals in the area:
In an email interview with CBC News, PGS spokesman Bard Stenberg said the company avoids sensitive feeding and breeding areas, and that professionally trained observers onboard the ships look for signs of animals in the area and will order a temporary stop to the testing if they spot anything. Stenberg said the industry has done seismic testing for 40 years, and in that time has demonstrated it is safe. The company says there is no scientific evidence that seismic testing is harmful to marine mammals.
While it’s good that this information is accessible, it’s coming from a spokesperson. Most people have the ability to read right through a public relations report. This is what CAPP is trying to avoid with their new campaign approach, and trying to make it humanized. The statement from this spokesperson is hardly that.

This is also a good example for what happens in the mainstream media. The original decision to approve the land for marine seismic has a chance to be overturned, and the media jumped all over it.

As a whole, this situation shows how industry is losing. Their communication approach is dehumanized, advertised, and behind the scenes. No one will want to stand up for industry if this type of communication continues from companies. It’s an uphill battle. Industry needs to help itself before supporters in the public will come out to help.

In an article from EnergyNow on April 29th, Canada’s resource minister, Greg Rickford, addressed this exact issue. Comments were made in October during a closed door meeting, including 40 to 50 oil executives in attendance. Excerpts from the article are below.
Canada’s resource minister is privately urging oil and gas executives to get outside the board room and pitch projects to the public, boost spending on environmental research and work more closely with aboriginal groups to win the public relations battle over energy. 
Greg Rickford spoke to a closed-door meeting of about 40 to 50 oil and gas executives in October. In the private address, Rickford congratulated industry on its achievements and touted his government’s record, as he regularly does in public speeches, according to the prepared remarks. He then called for industry to do more.
“You are fighting an uphill battle for public confidence” and “our messages are not resonating,” Rickford told the annual strategy session of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry’s top lobby group. 
“Enhance and expand your outreach. Communicate more effectively and clearly to Canadians with solid facts and evidence,” Rickford said, according to the documents. “Bottom line? We have to organize ourselves for success. And we have to do it together. Together. We can no longer look to others to do it for us.”
Rickford’s recommendations and remarks came back in October, and there now seems to be some action that are parallel to what he said. CAPP’s previously mentioned engagement tactics are an example, their Energy Citizens (energycitizens.ca) movement is gaining steam, and they plan to continue rolling out new tactics throughout the summer.

It’s a good start from industry, but it will be interesting to see if it continues, or if it’s all just a bunch of talk. Action needs to be taken, and while industry is behind the eight ball and fighting an uphill battle, there needs to be a collaborative effort to address the issue.

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