Oil and Gas seems content getting blasted within the ring of public perception. When will they fight back? PBOG dives deep into the public relations battle that our industry seems reluctant to take up.
by Tony Burke
Doesn’t everything seem so well marketed these days? While we, as consumers, watch television, listen to music, surf the Internet, read our favorite publications, or engage in virtually any other pastime, we encounter countless brands funneled specifically toward us as individuals. We’ve all seen these brands so many times that we have an established comfort level with nearly all of them. What we come instantly to associate with every brand name out there is that company’s persona. These corporate identities are so well-crafted and time-honored, that we usually have no cause to think about them.
Perfection in the branding arena may be unattainable, but oftentimes, the brands we see most really seem to have things figured out. Some employ highly entertaining ad campaigns, or better yet, blogs, and many of them interact with their customers through social media. The world’s top corporate overlords have become so sophisticated that their carefully cultivated personas have ushered in a new golden age of branding.
Take, for instance, The Coca-Cola Company, in business since 1886. Coke can be nearly impossible to avoid (unless you live in a Pepsi home that is). It’s something you drink at a party with friends, and it’s the thing you drink at the movies. Coke is practically synonymous with fun. It’s perfect in the summer, and it’s perfect in the winter. Coke is young and hip, yet also classic. Coke has achieved ubiquity. The general public does not know the inner workings of this international company, but they have seen it evolve over the years and are comfortable with the image presented to them. Coke has it easy today; they’ve been at this branding game for 13 decades, and just recently they were gifted the likes of Facebook and Twitter. The rich get richer.
Coke is among the globe’s top brands. The company takes occasional flak in the media and from certain corners, but it’s a brand people love, and have loved for a long time. No matter your stance on the morality of soft drinks, it’s difficult to deny that Coke has put a lot of positivity out into the world. The oil and gas industry, in so many ways that it will be difficult to unpack in one article, is a different story.
Soft drinks are not as controversial as hydrocarbons, yet the two industries face similar sets of hurdles. Somehow, nothing negative ever sticks to Coke, even when big city mayors try to limit the size of soft drink cups. There is a lesson in there somewhere.
The earliest American oil and gas companies (exploration and production, field service, etc.) date back about 100 years. That’s not quite as long as Coca-Cola, but oil and gas is one of this country’s most iconic industries and it has quite a rich history of its own. Sharing rich company histories is what a lot of modern marketing is all about. Today, this translates to generating positive buzz and sharing content that people can relate to. Commonly, this includes social media and blogging, but innovative companies are finding new ways of doing things all the time. Oil and gas companies have no shortage of history and great successes to share, but have thus far been mostly reluctant to do so.
It’s no secret that for oil and gas companies, significant branding and public relations work comes almost entirely in times of tragedy. Oil spills, explosions, and government action taken to hamstring the industry seem to make up the vast majority of news-worthy national coverage.
This malady has been duly noted by Brianne Adkins, vice president of membership and communications. “If you’re putting out a positive message and personality, you’d expect people to have a positive response to that. But this beast has been riddled with negative connotation for years and years. For people who don’t know much about oil and gas, all they think about are the spills, and the penguins,” she said in an interview with PBOG.
When major companies in all manner of industry worldwide are spending a lot of time, money, and effort to effectively brand themselves, the path reveals itself for those wishing to follow. When the path comes into focus, everyone else gets the chance to study it. We live in a nation of branders. Companies fight to protect their brand every day, just as do celebrities, athletes, and nearly every social media user. We are all curating our public image in some way or another. All of us, it would seem, except those working for oil and gas companies.
Why is this?
“If these E&P [exploration and production] companies aren’t getting their message out there—the truth about frac’ing, for example—if they aren’t being proactive in getting that story told, somebody is going to tell it for them,” said Adkins. “They are reactive, not proactive, and that’s a nightmare in the PR world.”
This is an uncomfortable truth for an industry that, to a fault, refuses to make its business extend to anything other than science, engineering, and problem solving. I know, I know… how dare they? And with oil and gas choosing not to tell its own story, who is? At best, it is a misunderstanding public; and at worst, a fear mongering (and equally misunderstanding) mass media and political system.
A source at one of the world’s largest oil corporations, and one of several representatives from top energy corporations to decline official (that is, attributable) participation in this story, said, “As far as E&Ps, not only are major oil companies not that interested in branding right now, they are decentralizing their brands and selling more gasoline than ever as unbranded product.”
While actually selling product in some type of marketplace is essential to marketing and can be an important part of branding, there are a few core elements that make a brand a “brand,” a persona if you will: a corporate culture that makes your company look a like a collection of real people, a rich history of how your company came to be, and a footprint that demonstrates the impact your company has had on mankind. Now if that sounds dramatic, that’s because it was intentional. Not every brand has to be filled with existential drama, but somewhere in the mix, a casual observer should be able to identify these three things in any brand they are familiar with.
Do oil and gas companies have corporate cultures?
According to Brianne Adkins, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
“I’ve tested this theory of mine. These companies have such vastly different corporate cultures,” she said. “Most people at these companies say, ‘we do?’ It’s often times something that they’re unaware of. These corporate cultures are almost unintentional but they bleed out beyond the company’s walls.”
Adkins even outlined three distinct corporate cultures of three very real and very impactful PBPA member companies. Here are her descriptions of how those brands might be portrayed in a branding campaign.
“Working at the PBPA specifically, I get the opportunity to really get to know our member companies, not just their representatives. I get some unique insight into these corporate cultures,” said Adkins. “These companies truly have cultures and personalities.”
“There’s one large, publicly traded company. On a commercial, it would look sleek and modern, innovative… even sexy. They encourage their employees to think outside the box. They have internal incentive programs for new ideas to cut costs or streamline processes.”
“Another, very large, publicly traded company, they might look dirty and gritty, rugged. Very ‘the ends justify the means.’ They are slender in terms of employees, and they’re ‘going and blowing,’ and expect their employees to work really hard. They expect a high volume of work and a fast pace.”
“I imagine a commercial for a third company as well. An all-American family sitting around a dinner table, maybe praying. They value family above everything else. Even in downturns, they don’t do layoffs, have very low turnover, and are family-oriented. Very into West Texas culture.”
Even with no company names offered, these brief observations go a long way in establishing that not only are phrases like “big oil” reductive and overly simplistic, but these companies comprise real people perpetuating observable corporate cultures. Perhaps all three of those descriptions will not appeal to all individuals equally, but giving the public the option of picking their preferences would make this exercise no different than blind taste-testing colas. Personifying oil companies is a concept that just doesn’t come up that often.
Do oil and gas companies have rich company histories?
With the most nascent stages of this industry dating back over 100 years, and most of today’s biggest players dating back at least a few decades, this seems like a silly question. No large-scale successes materialize completely out of thin air. Even overnight sensations should be able to speak to innovation, technology, or preternatural trend identification. More to the point, any company that started with one well and grew into a globally significant corporation passes this test with ease.
Does oil and gas advance the interests of mankind?
Though much of the general public is conditioned think this is an easy “no,” this question is actually be the easiest “yes.” Just don’t look to oil companies to confirm it.
The story of mankind’s energy production is an interesting one. It is a story of industrialization, infrastructural development, and even environmentalism. It is a story of ever increasing health and safety standards. There is an awful lot to tell, which makes it unfortunate when the telling is left to those whose interests conflict with American oil production.
“To some degree, a lot said about oil and gas on the national stage just isn’t true. You never hear back from ‘big bad oil,’” said Adkins. “It might be really confusing for people to see something positive emerge from a company they perceived to be evil,” said Adkins.
The story is an interesting one, and while the major players in energy remain content to let sleeping dogs lie, energy advocates including the likes of philosopher Alex Epstein, and filmmakers like Mark Mathis and Phelim McAleer, have picked up the torch to some extent.
Epstein, in his 2014 book, The Moral Case For Fossil Fuels, has championed the idea that using fossil fuels is our most humanistic course of action, and the one that allows for the highest quality of life for the greatest number of people. This stems from his surprisingly novel idea of discussing energy production’s positive side effects rather than dwelling on the negatives.
“The story of climate in the last eighty years is, by using fossil fuels, we’ve progressively climate-proofed civilization, particularly the more developed world where we have fossil fuels,” said Epstein in a 2015 interview with Glen Beck. “What’s happened is: climate-related deaths have gone down by a rate of 98 percent. So that means your chance of dying from extreme heat, extreme cold, or wildfire is one-fiftieth of what it used to be.”
“We’re taught to focus on, ‘let’s minimize our impact on the earth.’ That’s our standard of value,” continued Epstein, later in the same interview. “That’s how we measure whether we’re good. And we’re not taught to think about maximizing human wellbeing.”
Mark Mathis’s 2016 film, Fractured, makes a similar case that the green lobby is at odds with its own humanity. He asserts that fossil fuels have become ubiquitous in our lives, and going without them would only be to our detriment.
Further analyzing the industry’s societal impact, Mathis suggests that gasoline powered vehicles are arguably the most powerful democratizing force the world will ever know, tailpipes and all, and misguided conservation efforts actually work against that achieved equality.
“We don’t conserve anything until it’s painful,” says Mathis in Fractured. “You cannot separate price [increases] from conservation. If it’s expensive, we will conserve. What does that do to the poor? [Those who] spend a much larger percentage of their paycheck on energy than middle class people? So, the only way to get people to conserve is to squash the poor.”
How’s that for an energy footprint?
It is tempting to allow the debate over the environmental impact of the oil industry to dominate the discussion, but this hot button remains only one element in the grander discussion of how to guide this industry into a future of warm public reception and understanding.
Controversial or not, oil and gas’s apparent industry-wide steadfastness makes for a compelling case study. It comprises a group of largely successful companies and corporations that would seem to have all of the needed branding elements in place, yet prefer not to act in their own self-interest.
If an unnamed multibillion dollar corporation that answered “yes” to the three questions above (in emphatic fashion) suddenly wanted to launch a branding campaign, then would every major marketing and public relations firm in the world not line up for the chance to have them as a client?
Nuggets of positivity do sneak out from the walls of our most well-known oil companies from time to time, despite what would seem to be best efforts. Oil companies are viewed as integral to the communities in which they operate. This has not translated to national reverence, but it has earned these companies a cache of goodwill, albeit on a local and regional scale.
“In my experience with the PBPA, when some sort of accident happens, something negative, it seems like the community is very quick to forgive incidents that impact companies here that are repeatedly investing in the community. They donate to hospitals and fire departments and all kinds of things. Those companies tend to get off the hook when things go awry,” said Adkins.
As with all corporate perception struggles, good will is hard-earned. Just as some companies have a huge positive impact on their communities, a blanket distrust must still be overcome due to the fly-by-night element always lurking on the fringes of the roughnecking business.
“There’s a lot of truth to the idea that operators and E&P companies in the Basin are very skeptical of outsiders—‘fly-by-nights.’ New companies come to us, and the Chamber of Commerce, wanting to get their names out there. I ask them, ‘Do you have a brick and mortar in the Basin?’ I tell them to find a storefront, join the Petroleum Club, get an address in Midland, and start paying taxes. Chances are, if you don’t do that then the local companies might never answer your phone call. They’ve seen people come here, capitalize on the oil, capitalize on the money, and then they are gone.”
Great strength can be found in communities, but oil and gas do not serve only their local communities. This is an intriguing and complex notion to unpack, as standing up for one’s community is unquestionably honorable, even noble. Yet such an insular approach would seem to only be insulating an industry from its future. All evidence suggests they would be wise to start reminding people of just how important they are to life as we know it.
If Coke can deal with its haters, then why can’t American oil companies?
“Some of the largers, they value privacy. They want to exist and not be known. That would be their ideal scenario,” said Adkins. “I believe you can value your privacy and still be a good steward of your environment and take care of your public relationships.”
This opinion was backed by multiple company spokespeople who wished to remain anonymous. The same anonymous insider who spoke of his company selling more and more unbranded product also remarked that oil companies are more reticent and feel more vulnerable during a downturn, and that official comment might be more free-flowing during high times. The irony is delicious.
“Very rare is it when companies do something to better their image without being forced to do so,” said Adkins.
“This isn’t our dad’s oil field any more. This is a new boom. There is new technology,” she continued. “There is a younger generation taking over and this mindset is becoming more important. Those companies that buy into those sorts of things tend to be the more successful companies, even in a downturned market.”
All of this would seem to prompt the question, “Is a growing emphasis on branding and public relations inevitable in the oil industry?” While encouraging signs within the industry suggest improvement, and change is always unavoidable in the general sense, it’s still a fair question to ask. What signs have there been?
“More recently, some of the O/G [oil and gas] conferences I’ve gone to… this has become more and more of a focus. They used to have breakout sessions, now they’re bringing in keynote speakers to talk about these things. I think we will see more momentum on this,” said Adkins.
Adkins also alluded to a recent trend of in-house PR firms popping up within some of the major companies, catering exclusively to oil and gas clientele. These firms manage social media, messaging, and corporate image. With such great need, this development suggests that at least a handful of companies have finally bought into the power of media.
Tony Burke is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of PBOG. He can be reached at email@example.com.