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Authentic Outreach In An Era Of Energy Warfare

July 18, 2019

Twice in the last week, energy executives have asked me my opinion on the effectiveness of two oil and gas engagement tactics. One idea: set up an industry-wide “war room” to engage opponents head on, on every front. The other: invest in a social media campaign to match the scale and effectiveness of social media campaigns that oppose specific projects and oil and gas in general.

These types of tactics might have been effective 5 years ago, if they had grown along with and matched the opponents of energy projects move for move. Today, they will indulge the need many feel to do battle — but not be anywhere near decisive. I do understand that sitting on the sidelines losing every public fight is simply not an option. These tactics may have their place, but they are investments and will expend a lot of creativity, time, energy, and money that is better invested elsewhere. But where and how?

Both of these things are true:

  1. It has been frustrating to watch opposition to energy projects grow in sophistication, reach, and effectiveness.
  2. An equal and opposite reaction from industry will further energize and empower that opposition.

The problem:

As a plurality (and possibly a majority) of North Americans have adopted a worldview for which climate action is the dominant priority, the war metaphor puts us at war with the public (not just activists). This is obviously a bad idea.

It matters because:

The now existential threat of shifting public perception of the role of fossil fuels and growing opposition to oil and gas on multiple fronts requires companies to think about their engagement with the public differently. Your “war” with activists is increasingly perceived by the climate-concerned public as a war on them.

The critical mistake companies are making:

  • If opposition to energy is a war, we are losing. We are fighting to death rather than changing the paradigm – which will include leaving the war metaphor behind altogether.
  • “Wars” of facts and ideas don’t work. We know from the study of biases that people consume information that aligns with their worldview. Winning hearts and minds requires a new, non-battle approach.

Seize the day. Successful companies will:

  • Find a new metaphor. I get stuck in the war metaphor myself. Let’s replace words like opposition, attack, war room, enemy, front lines with new bridge-building language. Weather and sports work too!
  • Remember your audience. Most people’s opinions about energy and the environment are not held particularly firmly. While they may begin aligned with their political identity, citizens’ positions  on many issues can be influenced. The audiences that you want to connect with are your customers, your community, your projects’ neighbors, your regulators, and your shareholders. Engage in bridge building and trust creation with them. If you must engage with activists who opposed your company or its activities, keep in mind that they are not ultimately your audience, but that your audience is watching how you engage with those activists for clues about your true character and goals.
  • Share aspirations. If we understand the aspirations of our audience, then we can seek to share them. The most powerful disarmament tool — one that allows us to move away from the war metaphor — is joining sides with a shared aspiration. Reducing your company’s environmental footprint and carbon emissions are tackle-able (I coined another word), shared aspirations to explore.
  • This isn’t about winning. The industry does have facts on its side. Overwhelmingly. You can win all the fact-battles you want. But before you go nuts doing that — and it might be fun, or satisfying — ask yourself: am I making this situation better?
  • Set tactics accordingly. You are building bridges, finding common aspirations, creating new relationships for the long run. Your tactics need to reflect this. Identify your audiences and get to work.

This work is hard, and no one has it figured out yet. I welcome your critiques and ideas, and I invite you to hold me accountable to updating my language as well. Got a great new paradigm or metaphor to work with? Send me a message because I want to know about it.

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