Communication is Crucial

If you have an interesting story to tell, how do you get your message across to colleagues, to the oil industry – and to the rest of the world?
This article appeared in Vol. 9, No. 4 - 2013


Safety training video being filmed in Egypt . Source: John Simmons Your company has developed a new technology which you believe will revolutionize exploration; you want to tell people about the new promising acreage you have acquired; or maybe you want to inform colleagues throughout a worldwide organization about the success of the new health and safety strategy. How do you effectively communicate important messages across a diverse range of subjects and to people with varying levels of knowledge?

“You need to be able to get under the skin of the audience, to talk their language and understand the context in which the message will be received,” explains John Simmons, founder and Agency Director of ON Communication, a multimedia agency which specializes in working in the energy sector. “I was originally trained as a geologist, and worked in mining for several years, before becoming a writer and producer of scientific films and documentaries, for the BBC and later for corporate clients, mainly in the energy sector, so I understand a lot of the technical issues involved.

“Our diverse range of clients comes with an array of issues they need to disseminate to a wide and varied audience. Designing the right campaign is crucial, so the first thing we do when we start talking to a client is to ask ‘What do you want to achieve, what would success look like?’ We challenge them to precisely define the message they want to communicate. Then we help them to define their audience, or audiences, and work out the best way to approach them. Where possible we like to talk directly to representatives of the audience by running research workshops or telephone surveys to shape the communications we produce and effective ways to deliver them. Only then do we start to define the methodologies to be used; film, print and digital media all have their place.”

Wide Range of Projects

John Simmons (right) directing the making of a corporate film in Brazil. Source: John Simmons The range of communication projects undertaken by ON is broad and fascinating. For example, it is important that an oil company and the representatives of the country where they are exploring communicate effectively. The company may want to demonstrate their progress to the licensing authority, while the country needs to be reassured that the contract is being fulfilled. “To help get this message across we can make a film which shows how the exploration company is progressing, to demonstrate that they are operating in a responsible fashion and illustrating how the local energy professionals are benefiting from technology transfer and training,” John explains. “The audience for this is not just the government authority, but also the locals. We undertook a project in Algeria where I spoke to several workers who were keen to be interviewed so that they could express how happy they were to be involved and undergoing training. It is important that this information is delivered in an easily understood manner to their colleagues, as well as to their bosses.”

Sometimes ON is commissioned by large multinationals to help with corporate communication from concept to implementation. For example, for one IOC it produced a complete four-year multilingual, multimedia campaign as part of a major safety awareness drive. “We first identify the story with the client – in this case, it was simply ‘why are people getting hurt and what can we do to change this?’ – and then design a campaign to deliver this message to a broad range of people throughout the company’s worldwide operations. Not as simple as it sounds; safety covers everything from driving and lifting to energy isolation and integrity management, and the message needs to be appreciated equally by the PhD in the laboratory and by the laborer down a trench.

“Sometimes we are asked to help open up communication channels between politicians and oil companies, or between NOCs and ministers, and we are often involved in consultancy and production, where the challenge is to communicate effectively with people with a completely different level of knowledge and set of prejudices,” John continues. “ It can be very challenging. We have, for example, been involved on behalf of a partnership of several major energy companies in conceiving, writing and designing a poster-style brochure to explain the importance of depth in CO2 capture and storage. This was aimed specifically at politicians and decision makers and necessarily had to be clearly expressed in layman’s terms.”

A recent contrasting challenge involved explaining the complex technical issues underpinning a breakthrough in marine seismic acquisition for a major contractor who needed its technology to be understood both by geoscientists and in the boardroom. ON believed the key to this relied on the oldest form of communication, storytelling. The result is a documentary that captures the enthusiasm of the man behind the breakthrough and the technology team who developed the new system, with 3D animations to explain the technological challenge and how this development overcomes it.

Communication is Important

Geology being explained in the Gulf of Suez. Source: John Simmons Over the 27 years that ON Communication has been in business, it has undertaken projects in 64 different countries, in temperatures ranging from +55°C (the Sahara Desert) to -35°C (West Siberia) and in over 20 languages in both film and print. “As a result, when a client comes to us with a new project, we usually have some previous experience to bring to it, so we can hit the ground running,” John says.

John is passionate about communication, and in particular helping the general public to understand and appreciate the oil and gas industry – something which he believes needs much more work.

“The industry must overcome the disdain the public feels for it,” he says. “It receives such bad press all the time. People complain about the price of petrol, but readily spend much more per litre on bottled water. How can the industry help them to understand the vital place of hydrocarbons for decades to come, or the costs involved in extracting them from the ground, and the work and care that goes into it – and the excitement? Or make them understand that most people involved in this industry genuinely care for the environment? We need to build a bridge of understanding, to overcome the idea that oil is nasty, dirty stuff. We must educate the public about the chain of events which ultimately allows them to turn on a light or start their cars, and the real cost involved in the process. Communication is important and I believe that it is vital to involve the technical community to deliver the messages needed to build those bridges to the public.

The Joy of the Craftsman

“Lots of people produce communication media for the oil and gas industry, but few are as interested in it or have the technical knowledge that we have. I have a great respect for this industry and for the chain of talented people working in it, stretching across the planet, and I want to tell everyone about it.

“What I particularly love about what we do at ON is the satisfaction of being able to say ‘We made that’,” John explains. “The joy of the craftsman – few people have the thrill of that. If on top, people are gaining from our productions, becoming technically more competent or working more safely, then we have achieved what ON stands for.”


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