Originally Published: Houston Business Journal (Abridged) Publish Date: May 14, 2015 Author: Kathy Cripps, President, PR Council
With oil prices currently below $60 a barrel, energy companies have cut almost 100,000 jobs and tens of billions of dollars from their new exploration budgets. In all areas of their operations, they’re looking hard for ways to operate more efficiently. A seemingly attractive area for cuts is corporate communications. But if there’s one area in which companies should sustain funding, it’s communications. The enemies of fracking and other exploration activities aren’t going into retirement just because oil prices are low. If energy companies recede from public debates now, they might find that they’ve lost their informal “license to operate” when oil prices rebound. A critical reason energy companies invest in communications in the first place is to help mitigate risk. As Michael Kehs, US Energy Practice Leader at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, observes, “Energy companies are exceptional at determining the technical risks of drilling below the ground at specific sites. They understand the geology and its implications with great precision. But most companies must also understand that they need to apply the same kind of sophisticated knowledge to risks that may exist above the ground.” To prevent new political or regulatory hurdles from popping up when prices rise again, companies need to continue to explain that they can produce energy safely and responsibly, and that their efforts benefit local communities through added employment, tax revenues, corporate philanthropy, and the like. They can do this even as they become more strategic about their PR budgets. “Starting with a mindset of ‘here’s your PR budget, make it work’ is simply the wrong approach in these hard times,” says Steve Halsey, a principal and managing director at G&S Business Communications. “When the cost-cutting pressure is on, executives need to think strategy first.” If companies have already reduced their internal communications headcount, outside firms can help keep vital conversations going. “In the current climate, smart organizations will ensure that their outside firms and their internal teams work together to deploy messaging that keeps stakeholders informed,” says C. Renzi Stone, Chairman and CEO of Saxum Strategic Communications. Energy companies can further economize by deploying their own workforce as enthusiastic ambassadors. Every time employees come in contact with members of the community, whether in the physical world or on social media, they have the potential to help shift sentiment about energy production. Training your workforce to develop short “elevator speeches” about your company, its activities, and its contributions to the community can pay great dividends. Your employees, after all, are regarded as trusted sources by those in their social networks. Their opinions carry weight. Whether it’s through earned, owned, digital or social media, corporations have a plethora of communications channels at their disposal, notes Halsey. Before ruling out any of them in the name of cost cutting, he suggests that corporate leaders take a fresh look at how they can best align their business and communications strategies. Companies that let their communications efforts lapse don’t always feel the consequences—until it’s too late. Maintaining community support helps insure a public license to operate. Keep communicating even during these tough economic times; remain ever mindful of the aboveground, political risks—not just the below ground ones.