When it comes to facing worldwide business challenges, the energy sector has been on the frontline for generations.
Operating across regulatory and cultural boundaries, the sector has had to ride the currents of geopolitical change and communications has played a key role.
The Energy Leadership Platform is a new initiative by the CIPR to provide a space for practitioners to engage with the key issues surrounding this fascinating sector.
What makes the energy sector different from other large multinational industries?
Ella Minty: The complexity of its operations, the geopolitical and financial uncertainty of its markets, the high hazard of its operations, the high degree of technical expertise required, the diversity of its sub-sectors and the importance of its social licence to operate make the energy sector challenging, fascinating and completely different than other sectors.
Paddy Blewer: For an industry where consumer and brand communications is often not important, communications remains a truly vital management function.
Our core role as communicators is not to help sell a product (apart, of course, in gas and power retail) but is to ensure that an organisation maintains the varying levels of ‘permission to operate’ across a myriad of publics that are vital to long term success.
How does this shape the communications around the industry?
PB: Whether in house or consultancy, there is a strong community of communicators, often with a more diverse background than might be the case in other industries due to the specific needs of the energy industry. Energy communications is never just about oil or gas or power.
EM: The communication techniques, narratives, lobbying, strategies and community engagement and are as diverse and as complex as the sector itself. For instance, a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) project close to a protected area needs different unique selling points than one that requires installation of a wind farm. Similarly, building a hydro dam in Vietnam requires a solid cultural knowledge, as does offshore drilling in the Arabian Sea.
As one of the first truly global businesses, what can the energy sector teach other industries about working with different cultural and regulatory environments?
PB: The concept of ‘permission to operate’ is derived from upstream oil operations, where an operator not only needs formal governmental and regulatory permission but also needs to create permission from local communities and a wider stakeholder matrix to operate in and around their everyday life. This concept demands commitment to the concept and a multi-faceted communications capability, integrating comms across silos such as Public Affairs, community engagement, CSR, Media and stakeholder relations.
This concept has been seen to move downstream. No one wants to live next to a power plant, have a gas storage plant under their house (2000ft below) or have a transmission network built across their village. The philosophical and communications commitment of ‘permission to operate’ is a truly industry wide concept.
The industry has seen a lot of changes in recent years with geopolitical instability and fluctuating oil prices. How has the industry coped and what role has comms played in seeing it through challenging times?
EM: When the oil price plummeted, almost 100,000 people in the UK North Sea oil and gas sector lost their jobs. More may follow. Communication and honest dialogue, especially with regard to the oil and gas sector’s attractiveness for the young people, needs to become a common occurrence.
What we also need to consider is that, as told by oilmen themselves, this is the most risk averse industry in the world. Anything that may pose even a minimal danger, and here I’m talking about perceptions, reputations and share prices, is frowned upon. Excessive communication and engagement boundaries still exist. Openness does not come easily.
PB: We always have to consider the need for constant capital churn. Energy firms rarely risk their own capital – and then it’s to prove a concept that is externally fundable. There is therefore a constant need to demonstrate management ability to manage core volatility drivers to finance providers and shareholders. If financiers, including internal finance in big firms, lose confidence, projects get pulled.
Geopolitical dynamics mean constant balancing of messages to make sure permission to operate is maintained and partners trust management ability to manage challenges of upstream production in Kurdistan during regional conflict or potential nationalisation of retail business in Latin America due to economic weakness and emerging economic nationalism.
What will be the aims of the Energy Leadership Platform (ELP) and how can people get involved?
EM: This is our opportunity to clearly demonstrate that PR not only can be a management discipline but, most importantly, that it should be.
We are going to create a knowledge exchange and capacity building hub for the PRs in the energy sector (renewables, nuclear, electricity, extractives), using the best of our abilities to provide clarity on matters related to policy, public perception and engagement issues encountered by our peers. Not just in the UK but globally.
We are looking for senior PR/Comms/PA practitioners working in the energy sector to join Paddy and myself in what promises to be a very exciting and rewarding journey.
You can find more information here or contact Ella directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.