Canadians have largely tuned the sector out. They must be tuned back in if there is to be any hope of restoring rationality to political decision-making

Bill-WhitelawIt’s a common lament heard in oil and gas circles: “We need to communicate more effectively.” You hear it constantly these days – and we’ve heard it consistently over the years.

But nothing seems to change.

The sector’s poor communication skills are worrisome because the survival stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.

One big reason – beyond the fact that no one can agree on what “effective” really means – is that the sector seems unable to communicate with one voice. Or even multiple voices synchronized to create a unified message.

The sector also struggles to really understand its audience.

So, what it lacks in subtlety and nuance, it makes up for with bluster and brashness. And just hopes someone is listening.

oil and gas communication
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But they’re not. And it’s getting the sector nowhere. Fast.

Take the recent sectoral communicative response to the federal government’s proposed emissions cap legislation.

Predictably, the sector’s “Acronym Army” of industry associations leapt into the communicative abyss to condemn the proposed framework as a de facto cap on hydrocarbon production and, thus, an existential threat to the industry’s future existence. Press releases and social media posts decried the framework as just one more Ottawa cudgel blow to a sector already on its knees.

But the Acronym Army and what it has to say – and how it says what it has to say – matters only to those inside the sector’s echo chamber. And therein lies the problem.

ChatGPT could have looked back on 20 years of data of similar responses and written the press releases issued last week by the family of fragmented voices. The oil and gas sector’s ineffective communication efforts are failing to engage the public, often leading to counterproductive results.

The core problem is that our leading critics – two cabinet ministers and the prime minister spring to mind – thrive on the sector’s communication failures. The dissonance of its many voices, each vying for attention, perfectly suits politicians who love nothing better than to exploit these divisions for their advantage.

Bluntly, the lack of an effective communicative strategy only moves the needle backward. And because politicians base their actions on public opinion, here’s the clincher:

Average folks, including many in Alberta, perceive the oil and gas industry as monolithic and all-knowing. They view the sector holistically, more so than the industry insiders recognize. Consequently, they reasonably anticipate that when the sector communicates, it will do so in a manner that is equally thorough and considers all factors completely.

Average folk fail to recognize that the oil and gas sector consists of different entities, many of which prioritize their own interests, which may not always align with those of others in the sector. Consequently, politicians can easily dismiss all the rhetoric without much risk of losing their political capital.

So, when all the press releases flood the newsfeeds, it leads to a Tower of Babel where no single, cohesive message takes precedence.

But the emissions cap consultation process offers an ideal opportunity for a more unified communicative approach – and a way of rethinking core messaging that moves beyond predictable “broken-record” laments that are so time-worn they’re bereft of utility.

The Acronym Army represents a varied group of operators and service providers who have been positively contributing to reducing emissions for a long time. It can easily back up its words by highlighting the sector’s successful track record with concrete data and related stories.

Let’s also showcase industry leaders, allowing them to inspire and serve as examples for those lagging behind and hindering progress. The sector’s future success heavily relies on a “united we stand, divided we fall” philosophy. This approach invites Canadians and, in turn, their political representatives to gain a first-hand perspective of the sector. Of course, this presupposes a need for much greater collaboration and alignment among the different groups within the Acronym Army.

The sector has many truly remarkable stories to share. However, to be effective, these stories must convey a unified narrative. That is essential for helping Canadians recognize the very real benefits the sector brings to their quality of life.

Canadians have largely tuned the oil and gas sector out. They must be tuned back in if there is to be any hope of restoring rationality to the political decisions that will shape our future.

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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