It’s hard to hate someone you’ve met. However, the strategy and intent behind that meeting and all future interaction is key. In the case of energy companies and community stakeholders, tensions can be high from the beginning – most times due to preconceptions configured by both sides. Many problems stem from the fact that both parties have already assumed too much about the other based on negative generalizations, leaving little opportunity for sustainable, cooperative relationships to form and grow. However, for oil and natural gas companies hoping to do business in a small, local community, it is critical to understand that community outreach and strategic communication is the most important step in planting that first seed to cultivate those relationships.
Small towns know their local business owners by name and both parties say hello to one another at the grocery store and when dropping their kids off at school. If bigger, outsider companies want to build relationships with people in places like these, they have to be willing to put faces with their names and become active members in a community. Simply putting a face with a name—especially with an energy company’s name—can make all the difference in sprouting sustainable relationships in local communities. First impressions are important because a business’ identity is made up of many attributes before it fully exposes itself to a community. And the best way for a community to get to know the new business in town is to meet the people who work there and learn their intentions.
At first glance, a corporate entity is typically thought to be unapproachable, powerful, and self-serving – all characteristics that could make local residents mistrust or even dislike an outsider. However, knowing how to go through the process of communicating and weaving symbiotic relationships is the trick. And, the word trick here, is being used as a figure of speech.
From a public relations perspective, the worst thing an individual and company can do is let another party believe their words and intentions are being explicitly shared. Then, it turns out that all interaction was an attempt to deceive or reach a hidden agenda. Strategies like those come to mind when we think about how crooked politicians operate. A big part of any politician’s job has to do with their ability to communicate effectively, but a crooked politician’s definition of effective communication can be slanted. And, as cliché as this expression is, it only takes that one bad apple to spoil the bunch. Time and time again, the energy industry has been generalized based on those instances of bad apples, and there are many multi-million dollar movies out there to prove it.
For better or worse, companies have two identities: the ones they build themselves and the one society builds for them – which can sometimes result in a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation. The media has excelled at documenting any instance of corporation malfeasance, and Hollywood has turned out movie after movie portraying the dichotomy of the Big Bad Company and some young, brave soul determined to save the environment and the local community from corporate exploitation or pollution. Rarely does any industry that harvests natural resources such as fossil fuels get to be the hero, or even get to be on the hero’s side for a change. So, how does the energy industry combat this?
Do they pay to produce their own movies where the company gets to be the good guy? Should they work on reaching younger audiences, making sure every kid in the world has a coloring book with Talisman Terry, the “friendly” Fracosaurus dinosaur in it?—this is actually a real thing. Or do they work on building their own company’s image, striving for transparency and integrity in all that they do?
Although children’s characters like the Fracosaurus seems like the fun route to take, there are serious questions to be considered: Do energy companies appear to sincerely care about the messages they send out to residents in the local communities where they plan to operate? Have they thoroughly considered their strategy for community outreach and communication alongside their plans to drill?
When in the energy industry, a company should want to focus on the part of their identity that they have control over, starting with strategies of effective communication and community outreach – which do much to show local residents that monsters don’t lurk the halls of all big companies like they do in movies. Most importantly, company officials should be eager to get to know community leaders and other stakeholders, and strive to reach positive outcomes for all involved. And, the sooner these interactions occur, the better.
Too many times, when companies think about community outreach, they picture donations, charity, or volunteering. Now more than ever, businesses are encouraged to get involved in the communities where they operate, donating their talent, time, resources, and experience to grow local economies and build sustainable relationships. All of these strategies are wonderful and very much needed in local communities. However, effective community outreach is also the way companies choose to interact with stakeholders, ranging from one-on-one conversations with stakeholders, public events, social media, and even the appropriate language on the company website.
Energy companies like to express themselves in language such as excellence, efficiency, and innovation. Although those attributes are useful if a business wants to be seen as competitive in a national or global market, those priorities are less effective in positioning a business in a local community. In establishing an identity that makes a business more relatable, more human, it is important to uphold values such as empathy, generosity, and integrity – not just insinuating them on the company website or discussing them during team meetings, but to make sure they are genuinely implemented into all efforts of community outreach on a daily basis.