21st Century communication tools - but are we using them effectively?
How Do We Communicate?
In my previous ‘Editor’s Patch’ on communicating the science and technology of our industry to the world at large (Editors Patch- People are Afraid of What They Don't Know), I concentrated on What and Why we should be communicating. I want to now take a while to look at How we go about this, and the many routes and methods at our disposal.
The simple answer is that we should make use of all possible communication options, playing to the strengths of each one, from TV and radio to local outlets and across the whole gamut of internet-based and social media offerings.
The Bigger Picture
Geology is not thought of as a particularly ‘sexy’ topic for mainstream TV, yet recent programmes such as the BBC’s ‘How to Grow a Planet’ and ‘Rise of the Continents’ with Professor Iain Stewart, have proved very popular, with the general public gaining a much clearer understanding of the subject. After the airing of one such programme, a number of my acquaintances, who had obviously never given much thought to the world beneath them before, said to me “you’re a geologist; can you explain....”. General education in the geosciences is definitely needed.
An interesting project aimed at just that is the ‘Houston Energy Day’, a free, annual festival highlighting the importance of energy in our daily lives, with interactive demonstrations and exhibits about energy, science, technology, efficiency, conservation, and careers. In the same city, the Science Museum hosts the Weiss Energy Hall, an excellent and informative exploration of the energy process, with interactive computer graphics, holographic video displays and virtual reality, culminating in a trip in the ‘Geovator’, a simulated journey to the bottom of an oil well. These are both educative and entertaining, the ideal mixture – although perhaps the population of Houston may need less educating than most, and it would be good to see these innovations having a wider geographical reach.
For more specific communication tasks, we need to move to a smaller scale, where local outlets can be a vital tool; but remember that journalists, in whatever media, work to tight deadlines and usually do not have time to undertake their own investigations. We have to help them with them good sound bites, concise explanations and clear illustrations.
Undertaking the first shale gas exploration in the UK, Cuadrilla has discovered that it is important to get down to grass roots early and bring about debate before entrenched views take over, using the personal approach; anything from answering questions on local radio to actually knocking on doors and engaging local focus groups in discussion. Above all, they believe that listening to people with empathy and addressing their concerns is crucial.
Immediate Info Wanted...
People’s expectation of how quickly they get information has changed dramatically in recent years as a result of the internet and social media, so these tools need to be harnessed effectively by the industry.
The internet is now the first place most of us go to for information on just about everything, from breaking news stories to recipes, so it is important that the information the public need to learn about the O&G industry is easily found and clearly explained. Clear goals for each website are important, whether it be mass education, outreach, sales, or it creating a community. People learn in different ways, so we need to ensure that information is available in various formats. And website search engine optimisation is crucial - who goes beyond page 1 of a search, after all?
Can Facebook, Twitter, blogs and the plethora of other social media tools help inform and educate people about the oil industry? The answer is emphatically yes, when used appropriately. Facebook, for example, has moved from a messaging service for teenagers to being widely used by all generations. It reaches a wide audience and is a good way of creating a community and informing and interacting with them in a relaxed, unthreatening manner. The US unconventionals company Cheasapeake, for example, has a different Facebook page for each of the regions in which it operates, giving locals a place to address their concerns.
What about Twitter, a vehicle designed to express the innermost thoughts of egotists in 140 characters? In fact, Twitter is now used widely in business and can be a very useful tool to distribute knowledge about the industry, and to learn what others think about it. It is excellent for marketing, enabling companies to share news with both established and untapped audiences in a non-pressurised way. It also allows geoscientists and organizations to distribute content, always with the possibility that something will ‘go viral’: highly tweeted papers are over ten times more likely to be cited than non-tweeted ones.
LinkedIn stands apart from Twitter and Facebook as it is primarily a social network for professionals, used to form connections and build a network. Linked In groups are a useful discussion platform – the Statoil group ‘Energy Innovation’, for example, has nearly 50,000 members and is used for discussion on a range of topics by many people from different backgrounds, not just the industry.
These and other social media outlets are two-way communication methods. They can be used against the oil industry as well as for it, and having a site bombarded with negative comments is an inevitable aspect of such casual, almost personal communication. In addition, the immediate short blast, interactive nature of these platforms means that it is hard to convey a complex subject or argument. Instead, facts without context are offered - making it an ideal mechanism for organisations against the industry to express opinions. 'Fracking kills' is easy to retweet, and once retweeted is believed, but complex explanations are not so easy.
Have A Go
We need to use all the tools at our disposal to increase communication between the E&P business and the end user, the rest of the world. All methods and media have their place, although every company and organisation need not participate in every single option. Whatever you choose to do, devote resources to it and use these very accessible methods of communication to inform the public what the industry is about.
And finally, remember that ‘the public’ is not a huge, undefined object: it is your family, your neighbours and your friends. We are the ambassadors for our industry, so sometimes we need to raise up our own heads and tell local groups, schools and organisations about the exciting and vitally important work we do.
Everyone needs to be involved in communicating our science.
Jane Whaley, Editor-in-Chief.
Gloucestershire, England. July, 2014