Lead or Follow – the PR Dilemma

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A room packed with Comms and PR people who gathered in Oil&Gas UK’s Aberdeen headquarters to ascertain what their role may be in communicating a positive future for the oil and gas industry of the UK’s Continental Shelf (UKCS).

An event panel composed of Comms/PR people working for oil and gas operators (Equinor), supply companies (WorleyParsons), industry body (Oil&Gas UK) and contributors to Vision 2035 (Andrew McCallum).

A main question:

Can we, the Comms and PR people, can do anything to support Vision 2035 become “that space and place where the UK’s oil and gas operators and supply chain can be ambitious”, increase the export of British oil and gas know-how and expertise “by at least 50% of what it is currently”, and add a “generation” to the UKCS’ lifespan?

There were approximately 40 PR/Comms people, young and old, experienced and less experienced in energy PR in the room. I attended this event organised by CIPR Scotland in partnership with Oil&Gas UK because I wanted to see how CIPR’s newly set up Energy Leadership Platform can support our colleagues position themselves better with regard to what they can bring to the table, the strategic advice they can offer and the direct impact they can have in their organisations and with their clients.

You know how you sometimes go to some lectures/events/conferences, listen to what’s being said and have that eerie feeling that you’re not actually hearing right? That it must be your imagination?

I sat and listened to both the panel’s comments and the various attendees’ questions. And while I could feel my adrenaline level starting to rise (and not in a good way), the penny dropped: is it that the energy PR communicators see themselves only as broadcasting conduits? Is it that strategy, research and analysis stop at having a story in the local media bubble because, like someone said to me yesterday:

 If it’s not in the Press & Journal it means it never happened?

There is a Vision 2035 for the oil and gas industry of the UKCS and we, the PR/Comms people, have a significant role to play in turning this vision into reality. Our role should go beyond making sure that stories are placed in the regional media bubble, and we should not confound tactics with strategy, i.e. channels with content: “social media should, perhaps, be used more” (to quote one of yesterday’s panellists).

We must take an active role in not just telling the story of the UK’s oil and gas industry, but in making sure that channels and tools that I heard plenty about at this event are not chosen before a joint (operator & supply chain) Communication and Engagement Strategy is put together, not before a Communication Plan is devised, and a robust target audience research is undertaken.

No one (panellists or attendants) during this event mentioned “research and analysis” – no one.

No one (other than my rather angry intervention at one point) discussed about our role, as PR/Comms people in providing strategic advice to the leadership of the energy companies whose broadcast mechanism we often are, ensuring that any internal and external communication content we create resonates with all stakeholders of the organisation and, furthermore, that this content is totally aligned to the business objectives.

There was a feeble mention at some point:

“Perhaps we should tell less and listen more” …

Perhaps, I’d argue, if we all went to the CEO/MD and argued that our campaigns, promotions, media buys and editorials are based on audience research (qualitative and quantitative), then we’re likely to be listened because, then, our recommendations are not based on assumptions, but on evidence.

It’s very difficult to be trusted when you haven’t established yourself as a trusted advisor:

“Perhaps we should see how we can become more trusted”, one of the panellists told me.

Perhaps, I’d say, if we consider ourselves competent, trained and qualified not just in the specific PR/Comms roles we currently work in but, even more importantly, in the sectors we specialise in, and can demonstrate the value we can bring and all the professional knowledge underpinning our interventions, then we shall become more trusted.

We have a very long way to go in energy PR to establish ourselves as credible, knowledgeable, value-adding and strategic leadership advisors especially since, as a young colleague told me during this event:

In my company [which I shall not name], Comms reports into HR

I am not losing hope. I know that if we give people wings, they can fly.

I know that if we support our colleagues in the energy sector to assert their value in and contribution to their organisation, we will enable them to speak up, push back, promote a well-researched issue and one day say:

“Trust me; I know what I’m talking about and I take full responsibility for my advice.”

We’ll get there.






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