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The Transparent Imperative

Why oil and gas companies must master social media.
This article appeared in Vol. 10, No. 3 - 2013

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The oil and gas industry is seen by and large with great scepticism by the American and European public, and are often painted as a bunch of fat cats who look for every opportunity to ruin the environment and oppress the poor.

We all know how absolutely ludicrous this perception is. Oil and gas companies not only contribute billions of dollars to the economy in the form of jobs and tax revenue, but we also care for our communities. Cabot Oil and Gas, for example, bend over backwards to give back to the small towns of the north-east US where it operates. Exxon gives away millions for college scholarships. In my own hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, Chesapeake and XTO are permanent fixtures of the philanthropic landscape.

So why does the industry continue to battle uphill against negative public sentiment?

Many within the oil and gas community quickly point to Hollywood celebrities and hopelessly ignorant politicians as the main source of our problems. You cannot completely discount the sway these people have over the public, but I think it is time to take a good look in the mirror and see how we as an industry are contributing to the problem.

The Brave New World

The past five years have brought about revolutionary changes in oil and gas. Horizontal drilling, zipper fracs and multi-well pads have become the norm overnight. In the same way new drilling technology is shaping the industry, new social media technology is shaping the world. As social media expert Jay Baer points out, once upon a time the only way to complain to a company about a defective product was to go back to their booth at the town bazaar. Then they invented the postal service and we could write letters. Next came the telephone and customer service representatives to man the phones. Email followed and consumers were given yet another way to engage with vendors and brands. Social media is the next natural step in customer engagement.

Unfortunately, many in the industry are still living somewhere between the town bazaar and the telephone. When a frightened public is faced with perpetual scare tactics from oil and gas opponents and ominous headlines from journalists who glory in fanning the flames, it takes much more than parades and community picnics to turn the tide.

The world has changed – drastically. Look at Facebook’s one billion users – there are nearly as many Facebook users as there are Catholics in the world. If Facebook was a country, it would be larger than China in three years. The amount of time people are spending on social media is staggering, and this has trained them to expect certain things. Today, if someone wants to learn more about your company, they often go to your Facebook page or Twitter account before your website. People have become accustomed to interacting with brands and forming their opinions about them based largely on how they interact with their audience. The same could be said about entire industries.

However, if you search social media platforms to find valuable insights about oil and gas, you would not walk away with a favourable image of our industry. Instead, you will get an earful from Josh Fox and his anti-fraccing Gasland minions. You will be told, inaccurately, that companies refuse to disclose the ingredients of their frac fluids, and shown endless pictures of flaming water faucets, all of which have been proven to be caused by naturally occurring biogenic methane. And we as an industry remain conspicuously absent in all of this.

I recently checked Facebook to see how many of the largest oil and gas companies on earth were active on the network – less than a dozen. Here we are with the greatest American energy revolution happening right before our eyes, which has already poured untold billions of dollars into the US economy, and we are letting our adversaries dictate the conversation and shape public perception. And the best answer we can come up with is to kick the can and grumble about how bad we have got it.

Be In It to Win It

It is time to face facts. These conversations are taking place, whether we like it or not. The only question that remains is will we come to the table to present the facts? Will we be open and transparent, building trust and gaining the admiration we so richly deserve? Or will we continue to bury our heads in the sand hoping the problem will go away?

If it were not for oil and gas, we would still be driving horse carts, dying of dysentery, heating our homes with wood from disappearing forests and fumbling around in dark rooms the moment the sun went down. Truth be told, the oil and gas industry is responsible for lifting the world out of poverty. As John D. Rockefeller said, “Let the good work go on. We must ever remember we are refining oil for the poor man and he must have it cheap and good.”

The world needs to know our story. If we do it right and are willing to meet people where they are on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., they will not only gain an appreciation of our achievements of yesterday, but will eagerly partner with us as we build the bright future of tomorrow.

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