Aside from avoiding spills, How the oil and gas industry can finally win the war for hearts and minds

How the oil and gas industry can finally win the war for hearts and minds

By Bill Whitelaw

July 25, 2016, 7:23 a.m.


Canada’s oil and gas sector needs to add a new senior executive to its “C-Suite” – a CSO.

That’s a Chief Story Officer.

It’s a senior position critical to fleshing out and assertively responding to the industry’s biggest challenge beyond crushing commodity prices: its reputation and by extension, its future.

Never mind fretting about the social licence “to operate”; external dynamics are rapidly shifting to the social licence “to exist.”

The industry’s problem is pretty simple: it has great stories to tell, but collectively and individually, it’s a poor storyteller. It’s that lack of an ability to tell a compelling story that is exacerbating an already challenging confluence of government policy, public opinion and shrill opposition.

Indeed, the notion of “storytelling” sits uneasily on the minds of corporate leaders whose perspectives are rooted in, and shaped by, concepts and constructs more technical than social.

Even as nascent opposition was gaining momentum to oil and gas development years ago, the C-Suite more generally scoffed at the concept of communicating through storytelling and preferred instead to let “science” and “the facts” carry the burden of convincing folks that the industry was up to good and not harm.

Here’s the reality: the upstream sector has too long suffered from a debilitating combination of hubris and naiveté about the need to communicate – much less story tell – at all (the hubris) or how to communicate (the naiveté).

In terms of relying on the facts, rarely, however, do science, and the facts of science, make for compelling stories when told ineffectually – especially when in the public sphere they’re so easily countered by opposing science and opposing facts.

Storytelling is both an art and a science. The art is about timing, creativity and audience. The science is about timing, creativity and audience. The art and the science work co-dependently to compel audiences to listen, seeking guidance to some form of deeper understanding or knowledge gain. People look to stories to shape their various life worlds; to define the day-to-day actions and responses to the challenges and events that constitute the debates that shape daily life.

In other words, storytelling is also a powerful narrative construct that connects to people to the ways they make meaning about the world around them. The narratives that people believe are foundational to the meaning of their lives. And here’s an important distinction: storytelling is communication, but communication is not necessarily storytelling.

That’s a critical nuance.

Why? Simply put, storytellers are trusted. If you aren’t trusted, you’re not a storyteller, but simply a narrator. You’re lobbyist. A propagandist. Or a politician. These folks offer narratives, thinking they’re telling stories to be sure, but rarely does trust factor into the listening equation because these narrators lack authenticity. And if they’re inauthentic, more typically than not, they’re not trusted.

What’s core to a good story – and why is trust so important in the process? It is all about meaning – and how meaning gets made.

Meaning doesn’t get made by shoveling numbers at someone (a typical industry predisposition) or by pointing at someone else’s performance, say environmental, that is perhaps more egregiously poorer than your own.

Meaning is about the why of why something matters. That’s why so many of the industry’s opponents are winning the storytelling war, one battle at a time. They’re simply better storytellers because they understand one key truism of life: people make meaning emotively; that is, they need to feel some way about something in order to define a perspective around it.

When these storytellers use numbers, for example, they use them to create outrage and anger – this is one way among many they use to cast the sector as regressive rather than progressive.

So what would the Chief Story Officer’s role be? First, to start collecting and cataloguing the fantastic sets of stories this industry has to tell. There are environmental stories and technology stories. There are tales of innovation and dramatic progress. These are the stories that if told effectively – in the right context, by the right tellers – that could help the sector regain the public’s confidence. But the CSO will have a tough task convincing corporate powerbrokers that storytelling can carry the day. Yet, in a way, that is counter-intuitively actually better because the higher the corporate level from which storytelling is attempted, the more likely it is to find a disinterested audience. Put another way, the CSO will need to convince senior management that it is rank-and-file staff who will carry the day. Not in the boardroom. At soccer fields. At neighborhood barbecues. At the chance Costco encounter.

The places where the best stories are told – and believed.

Storytelling is a powerful way for industry to build trust with the folks who consume its products, in particular that significant cohort of “un-decideds” – those Canadians who are open to trust-building outreach.

(In part two, some examples of those industry stories, told in a way that builds trust.)


About prosperitysaskatchewan

Consultant on Saskatchewan's natural resources.

Posted on July 25, 2016, in economic impact, oil, political. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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