Thursday, October 21

Changing The Game: A Conversation About Oil Company Credibility

A few dozen people are claiming the Chevron disaster is the satire launched against it. Not even close.

Companies don't need to worry about or fear satire. They need to learn from it. Characterizations are seldom made of companies that don't deserve a ribbing on some level. After all, the essence of most comedy, especially satire, is finding the middle ground between tragedy and laughter. The tragedy in this case is the Chevron campaign, not the spoof.

The Tragedy Of Green Campaigns By Oil Companies.

Having worked in and with the energy industry, I've met quite a few people. Generally, they are not stupid people. Most of them are smart, like in any industry. However, even some of the smartest have nestled up comfortably inside an industry cocoon.

Most communication conversations tend to revolve around what they can't do as opposed to what they can do. And, their favorite answer for anything is "you don't understand, we can't do that because we are in the [energy] industry." As Ike Pigott said, after I asked how oil companies might gain credibility with the public, "what the oil companies *haven't* done over time is trust the public with their story. [The credibility gap] is self-inflicted."

Exactly right. Oil companies talk too much. So while the new Chevron campaign is aimed at well-researched public sentiment, Chevron seems to have heard but never really listened. If it had listened, it would have come to the realization that public trust has eroded to a point where they cannot tell their own stories anymore, at least not about their pursuit of renewable energy.

You see, when oil companies do talk about renewable energy, it almost always sounds like listening to a fiery-eyed demon promising to show you the way to heaven. "Yes," they hiss. "I might be in the business of dragging souls down here, but look, I really want to help you up because you all seem to be such nice people."

Creating A Basis Of Understanding.

Sometimes the message is the messenger. Unfortunately, for the oil industry, they aren't the right messengers. They have to trust the public with their message. They may even have to trust people they consider the enemy with their message. But even then, a message is not enough. They need to trust these people with reporting on positive oil industry actions.

There is a challenge to that. Most oil companies (much like most energy companies) aren't ready to do it. They've been spoiled by decades of only communicating the end use: brilliant light bulbs, beautifully grilled foods, toasty heaters, nice cars.

The reality is that the energy business is super ugly, smelly, and sometimes hazardous to your health. Like much of the manufacturing industry, they want to hide the ugliness as much as possible. Even when I've worked with manufacturers and energy companies, they don't want anyone to take onsite pictures unless those pictures are carefully screened.

However, proper planning could allow these behemoths to slowly pull back some of the curtain. (Not all of it. Goodness no. Not everybody looks good when they are naked.) How far can they pull it back? As far they need to in order to regain trust.

For most oil companies right now, all we see are toes. And even those toes have been polished up for the photo shoot (and sometimes after the shoot). That's not public relations. It's propaganda.

Opening Dialogues With People.

Any public relations plan by an oil company needs to be approached on two fronts. Big picture, even if they are not the only stakeholder. And specific action, almost like Chevron tried to do with its cherry-picked and polished up campaign.

The Big Picture Dialogue.

Why big picture? Because, frankly, nobody really knows how oil companies see the future. If you look at a different industry, we very clearly knew how Apple saw the future of smart phones — long before the infrastructure really existed to support them. And even if you didn't like Apple, most people liked the vision (so much so, everyone followed suit to fill demand).

What this means is that if oil companies want to be credible, they have to stop campaigning for themselves and start campaigning for a sustainable new/renewable energy future. They might even have to promote other people who are involved in the solution (much like Apple promoted certain apps). And, they may need to funnel support toward solution-oriented people as opposed to regulation-oriented people, diminishing the need to fend off what are sometimes very unfair attacks.

These big picture campaigns need to be joined too, perhaps by as many stakeholder groups as possible. Such connections might even help ward off politicians from attacking oil companies as the bad guys and painting the ultra green taxpayer subsidized companies as the good guys. That is not always the case, you know.

The Specific Action Dialogue.

Almost every oil company is pursuing varied degrees of research and development of renewable energy. In most cases, it's a very tiny, tiny percentage of their overall business. And that makes sense to some degree. There is no money in it and companies don't exist on good will alone. Likewise, over focus on tiny investments is disingenuous.

In that regard, I personally believe some of the Chevron message. On one of the many campaign threads, Desmond King, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says ...

"We invest in energy technologies that satisfy, or have the potential to satisfy, four basic criteria: economics, scale, customer expectations and density—that is, the ability to be delivered on demand and in quantity. And we never stop looking."

I believe that. It's how companies operate. They look for innovations that will make them money. For Chevron, geothermal is one of its investments. The downside, at the moment, is that it may be the largest geothermal supplier in the world, but it's still only a speck of the energy we consume.

These are the stories that need to get out. However, Chevron and other companies need other people to tell these stories. And, equally important, the public needs more proof that every advancement fits in with the big picture plan. They want to know what percentage of energy comes from renewables like that now and in the future. Plans are powerful things.

The Reality That The Public Doesn't Want To Hear.

Naturally, oil companies cannot attack the public, even if the public sometimes deserves attacking. Sometimes we collectively act like locusts, complaining that there aren't enough fields to eat after we've already eaten them. And we also complain about the waste we leave behind after we polish them off.

But, they really can't talk about that. The auto industry falls back on this conversation too much as it is. Boo hoo, they say, people don't want to buy our clean cars. It might be true, but some things are better left off the table — you know, it doesn't make sense to tell the girl you want to date that she looks fat. Besides, after decades of being sold on the great wonders of energy we consume, it feels very empty to stress "we're just keeping up with demand." Leave that one to the porn industry.

So what can they do? This is where public relations can also help, with the first step being to stop the endless prattle about how the public (government) needs to help fund the infrastructure. We already do. We fund it with every gallon purchased and every product bought. If you have to kick up gas one or two cents to pay for more renewable energy production, then do it.

When it comes to the public (government) funding renewable energy, the return is always less than private sector investments. It's just the way thing works. Government-funded or mandated projects tend to consume more than they produce (and yes, I have examples). It's why government-funded projects are best confined to things that are not profitable but desperately needed. Energy is not one of these things. It is profitable. And if some portions of it won't be, then it's best that they not be pursued.

This touches on some of the points Tim Walker and Matthew Stokes brought up. Stokes hopes that renewable energy gains more credibility in the marketplace. Walker mentioned how serious capital investments are need to make renewable energy meaningful.

Those are both solid points. Somebody other than oil companies needs to free the topic from politicians. You see, as soon as politicians grab a message, they muck it up into something worthless like kill oil now or forget renewables. Baloney. The only solution is to use our current consumption (despite its ugliness) to fund future solutions. At the same time, we have to admit that the transition isn't going to happen overnight.

Recapping Communication Tips.

Since this post tended to be conversational, I thought it might be worthwhile to recap the general concept. How could an oil industry regain credibility? After they shut up, they might ask people to open a dialogue and really listen (as opposed to hearing). After that, they might even work with people to find solutions. As for the rest, here are seven critical steps.

1. Define the vision and/or promote other people's visions toward a renewable energy future.
2. Highlight actions that prove you are moving in that direction, but let others tell those stories.
3. Make sure you define how those tiny successes fit into the vision, today and tomorrow.
4. Open up a dialogue about the challenges, inspiring entrepreneurs to provide solutions.
5. Don't hide all of the ugly side, but do work to humanize it with real people in the field.
6. Stop whining about government regulations and start dismantling their excuses to make regulations.
7. Stop asking government for money for infrastructure. That's public money. We already invest privately, every day.

People sometimes act like we have never seen technological leaps forward in this country. We do it all the time, and the adoption rate has never been faster. Many of these leaps forward required new infrastructure but that infrastructure always seemed to rise up to meet demand. Ergo, somehow we managed. The government didn't always have to fund it.

In fact, in terms of the auto industry, it couldn't be more simple. If hybrids are the future, better plugin devices need to be developed for the home (and sold with the car). Since they are hybrid cars, gas stations don't have to upgrade unless it is equitable. When it is equitable, and as the cars become less hybrid in nature, the infrastructure will keep up.

And if the government wants to be proactive and meddling heroes too? Allow people to receive a double credit for the sales tax on their income taxes. You can make up the difference by not funding some of those government-funded consumption companies. Of course, other ideas are always welcome here.
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