Opinion

Setting Your Public Affairs Strategy in a New Energy Era

The Energy Renaissance

In 1973, I had just started college and drove my trusty Monte Carlo. When the oil crisis struck the U.S. that year, I’ll never forget waiting in long lines to fill up at the pump.

For me, or anyone else back then, it would have been difficult to imagine a day when the U.S. would be an energy superpower. But this summer, that was precisely the story splashed across headlines—in addition to leading the globe in natural gas production, we’ve now officially surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer.

The Promise of Power

With this historic milestone comes a variety of good news. Rising demand and production are signs of a recovering economy; energy and the infrastructure needed to deliver it mean new jobs; and soaring production brings the U.S. one step closer to energy independence (and less reliant on unstable regimes for our energy needs)—a goal both sides of the political aisle agree on.

It also means companies in the energy sector are under a more intense spotlight and therefore must turn their focus towards designing and executing a public affairs strategy that reflects the new energy landscape.

The Strategic Challenge

The key challenge facing energy companies is avoiding what can be called “dynamic gridlock.” A large and dynamic sector like energy will inherently be one that’s rapidly evolving. More often than not, it moves too rapidly for the regulators in Washington to keep up.

The political gridlock we’re all aware of forces lawmakers to paint issues in black and white, resulting in a prism of “winners and losers.” In the face of so many unknowns, policymakers’ reaction is to try to regulate, whether they fully understand the market or not. In fact, success can even be seen as a negative—politicians figure a booming marketplace needs to be slowed down and reined in so they have time to understand it. Pretty soon, companies that produce and deliver the energy needed to make our economy run are caught up in a Washington debate that quickly places you in either the winners or losers column.

Meanwhile, the energy sector may move too quickly for regulators and the media to keep up, but it never moves quicker than the time it takes for the public to form their opinions.

A Winning Strategy

How do you deploy a public affairs strategy to avoid getting stuck on the losing side—or avoid the dynamic gridlock altogether?

It’s about balanced message, balanced approach, and balanced allies.

Remember everyone I saw lined up at the gas stations four decades ago? Those were consumers caught in the middle of an energy issue, hands tied by the industry and politics. Today, it won’t come in the form of lines at the pump, but you still risk stranding your consumers in the middle if you don’t find new arenas to tell your story.

In energy, more so than most industries, this means building coalitions of unlikely allies. While others talk over each other in the environment vs. energy debates, success in today’s energy policy debates often result from finding common ground on divisive issues. Demonstrating community impact or pulling away the curtain and explaining the science behind the industry can help move opponents closer together. A message that finds common ground and is delivered creatively will grow your list of allies.

For the companies that do this successfully, the next time there’s a crisis, the conversation won’t be about winners and losers—it will be about what is the right path for all concerned. Companies that embrace “the conversation” will be better positioned as a trusted partner to help lead us toward reaching our full energy potential. Developing trust doesn’t happen overnight nor can it be achieved through television advertising. Trust is developed when you demonstrate that you have the best interests of the community in mind as you go about your business operations. It’s developed through a continuing dialogue with everyone concerned. It’s about listening to concerns and making genuine efforts to address issues in a fair and responsible way.

With natural gas exploration skyrocketing and petroleum production booming, forecasts reveal that this American energy renaissance will transform our economy and global standing for years to come. The companies with a public affairs strategy designed to develop trust among all stakeholders will avoid dynamic gridlock and lead the way to our energy future.

Gloria Story Dittus is the Chairman of the strategic communications firm Story Partners headquartered in Washington, DC.  Visit Story Partners’ website here: StoryPartnersDC.com

 

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