Oil and Gas: Dealing with Negative Press Proactively

In some fields, public criticism and negative press are par for the course. Whether it’s a direct, event-driven attack, or a general industry-wide critique, one piece of journalism can have a serious impact on the reputation of an organization.

Most, if not all, oil and gas companies have to deal with these issues at some point. The right public relations team – complete with crisis-management experts – can play an important role in reducing the harm associated with bad press. But at a time when information – including that which is unsubstantiated – can travel in a matter of seconds, other, more proactive approaches should also be included in reputation-boosting efforts.

This post will look at a few things you can do in response to the threat posed by negative press.



Crisis Planning & Threat Detection

To quote Benjamin Franklin, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It goes without saying that the best crisis management involves never getting into a situation where you have to deal with an all-out crisis. Of course, this isn’t always possible. Careful planning can limit potential damage by preparing employees to carry out their responsibilities smoothly in challenging situations. Should the worst occur, a comprehensive plan will allow the entire organization to pull together and achieve a positive outcome.

In creating such plans, it’s always beneficial to consider the failures and successes of the past. For example, during the BP oil spill of 2010, the petrol giant could have done certain things differently in order to avoid looking like it was passing the buck (BP executives made it known that they owned the oil involved, but not the rig). That said, the company received high marks from P.R. experts for providing an in-depth look at its clean-up efforts on social media.

Part of any good crisis-preparedness plan includes implementing the right early-warning system so reputation-damaging events can be detected and responded to early. This is important at a time when information (and misinformation) spreads rapidly. Thanks to Twitter, one article about a pipeline leak could be passed around to thousands of people in a fraction of the time it would have taken to circulate in the past. Controversial online media needs to be addressed quickly, before it’s shared across the country (and beyond).

Automated content-monitoring systems aren’t prone to human error, so they’re your best bet for ensuring all relevant news items are caught. Finding the right platform can cut down team anxiety and allow for more cool-headed responses from the professional(s) designated to analyze threats. When choosing a platform, things to keep in mind include the importance of real-time alerting, as well as any feature that allows analysts to recognize relevant information within an article at a glance. These functions will allow for quicker, more agile responses.



Become a journalist (or find the people in your company who can)

Often, communicating during a crisis just isn’t enough. Companies are perceived as most trustworthy when they have a positive reputation before negative press appears. This is one of many reasons why having an appealing brand is important.

One way of building a brand is through what’s frequently called branded journalism. Corporations like Microsoft and Nissan are telling their own stories. Using content written in formats that contain characteristics of journalism, these organizations are able to achieve some of the benefits that come with earned media. Hiring expert writers and editors from publications like the Wall Street Journal and Forbes further boosts credibility. And the best part is, the demand for this type of content is rising. For companies in sectors that are sometimes viewed negatively, the appeal of this approach is obvious.

This post previously mentioned the insider’s view BP provided during its 2010 clean-up work. It’s worth noting that an entire section of the company’s website was devoted to images, maps, and videos tracking its efforts. A Slate article described how this strategy gave viewers something they didn’t get “in an interview with Katie Couric.” Contrasting the company’s own methods of disseminating information with those of the outside media serves to highlight the benefits of this approach.

Interestingly, the Louisiana Seafood Board used a similar approach to tell the stories of those affected by the spill. With the help of News Strategies LLC, the board set up a newsroom that helped secure $30 million in assistance from BP.

For corporate brands, every article acts as one piece of a larger story. Presenting this story in one place sets the newsroom approach apart from one-off methods of generating press.

The best corporate newsrooms go beyond simply republishing press releases. They respond to and build on ideas that are already floating around in the mainstream press. They engage with the wider world. For this reason, it’s important that writers are willing to seek out interesting stories and topics in the media, whether this means finding automated tools that deliver relevant content to them, or simply keeping their eyes open.

Getting writers with experience in journalism is a top priority for many companies, but it isn’t necessary. There are plenty of writers willing to work for smaller operations, and large corporations usually have a wealth of talent to draw on. A great example is the corporate newsroom at Verizon Wireless. The website, which can be found here, is aesthetically pleasing and full of informative content written by those in the know – public relations and corporate communications professionals working in its various offices.


Find and share positive industry and company stories

Companies in industries often portrayed as negative tend to see staying under the radar as a good strategy. But trying not to make waves doesn’t keep criticism at bay – it just diminishes a brand’s relationship with the public.

Having one or several individuals share stories about the company, its employees, and its innovations makes a favourable impression. Using social media in this way makes a company appear more friendly and transparent, and positions its leaders as industry thought leaders. There are two ways to do this: actively seek out and republish positive press, or create your own journalistic content (more on that in the next section). Ideally, these approaches should work together.

Another way to build this sort of credibility is to share interesting content related to your industry. As part of a strategy that includes publishing original content, curating and sharing positive ideas is a significant part of building thought leadership.

I thought I’d share a couple of interesting recent articles on the oil and gas sector. Yesterday, I viewed a dashboard containing all recent news stories related to the industry. In a long list of titles referencing the “awful” third-quarter earnings expected for firms reliant on oil, a couple of items stood out.

A CBC piece, titled “Why Trudeau is Good News for the Oil Patch”, discussed the beginning of the end of the association between oil and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The article contained portions of a previously-recorded interview with Max Fawcett, the editor of Alberta Oil Magazine. In the interview, Fawcett points out that, for many Canadians, Harper’s attitude about building pipelines seemed overly aggressive. He speculates that this is what caused many Canadians to oppose these projects.

An article in the Prairie Post discusses a recent Medicine Hat visit made by Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) VP of Communications Jeff Gaulin. The article focuses on some of the association’s recommendations for reducing emissions through investments in innovation and technology.

What’s interesting about both of these articles is the way in which they call attention to past negative issues in an attempt to reframe conversations surrounding oil and gas. The sector is often viewed as out-of-touch, and in many cases, company communication methods do little to dispel this notion.



The talent

When it comes to crisis management and brand building, tools and best practices are continuously improving. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the team. Are those working in your company proactive as opposed to just reactive? Are they up-to-date on the pubic and media perceptions surrounding your company and industry? In times of upheaval or confusion, will they be steady hands on the wheel?

If you work in oil and gas – or any industry prone to public scrutiny – the answer to these questions had better be yes.


Feature image courtesy of Gage Skidmore

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