The oil and gas industry has had a varied relationship with stakeholders in the past, and that means winning hearts and minds has become key to projects having the best chance of success. How can the industry meet this challenge?
The oil and gas sector in Australia faces difficult challenges ahead for engagement. In the digital age, the industry should expect its direct and indirect stakeholders to be highly engaged and emotionally mobilised, which may come from political movements, environmental groups and the local community. This means it’s more important than ever to communicate with stakeholders when and where they want, in a way that matters to them, to maintain the social licence to run successful operations.
Social licence – defined as the acceptance and approval from your external stakeholders – is the primary aim here. The social licence spectrum helps show the importance of building legitimacy, credibility, trust, and then advocacy. It’s an ongoing grind to create, and it’s yours to lose at any moment, so keep working on it through your engagement process.
In your favour is the fact that the oil and gas industry has traditionally been good at community consultation to secure privileges such as land access. This is because it’s renowned for putting money where its mouth is and has previously made good investments in advertising to promote the benefits of the sector.
Conversely, new pressures have pushed stakeholder management in a different direction. The world of newsletters, fact sheets and construction updates has evolved, and with the 24-hour news, the cycle comes people expecting up-to-the-minute information. The focus is now on the individual, so your communication needs to address what your activities mean for them and the issues that matter to them.
Engagement needs to accommodate this shift. Where we used to talk about a project in terms of size, scale and time, it’s now about how the outcomes will lead to opportunities for a better lifestyle or leave a community legacy for future generations. Those messages reach hearts and minds a lot easier than project facts.
People in the oil and gas sector understand and tend to talk the talk of the industry, but external stakeholders are more interested in the bigger picture, the one that includes their lives and livelihoods. Start with the bigger vision – the outcomes and benefits of the project – rather than the physical and technical outputs.
By leading with a big, positive outlook you’ll find it easier to attract advocates: influential stakeholders who will play a role in capturing the hearts and minds of others. Analyse your stakeholders, find the common thread, know where they go and who and what they trust, and create a story that resonates with their values. Build supporters, and they’ll help extend your narrative by engaging with the masses through existing, trusted channels. You don’t need to invest in new channels where it’s difficult to build the right following if you already have an opportunity to play where your stakeholders play.
The bigger picture also includes investment in the community. The industry can only develop social licence when the people impacted can see material benefits being delivered by the industry to address priority local issues. Don’t go the easy route when it comes to sponsorship. Understand the real issues in a community and get behind those. You will find the movers and the shakers in the community are probably involved directly or indirectly with these causes, so rather than creating your own platform, think about what you can do with what’s already there and tailor your budget to what the community finds relevant.
This should continue even after completion of the project, especially with regard to supporting a local area population through the transition from delivery to operations. What’s stopping people from staying in a local community, spending there, being there, living there? What other social issues face that community because things have changed? Think about how you can support and collaborate with existing organisations to make things happen.
Building capacity and capability in a community are important because that will lead to a longer-lasting legacy than, for example, a swimming pool built with a fanfare which the community then has to maintain into the future. Mining, oil and gas companies have been called out for making major investments or gifting expensive assets in communities that people can no longer manage, or don’t see value in later.
Once you have some good things going, don’t be afraid to tell people about your contributions. People are interested in what’s going on in their local area, and putting out a balance of proactive and reactive, positive, interesting, neutral, and factual information is going to help you find ways of reaching stakeholders and getting them to talk about you in different ways.
Don’t be surprised if some stakeholders express scepticism about what you’re doing in their community. The best way to counter this is to be proactive about providing context and data to support your position. If the project you’re working on is supposed to achieve a certain goal, find out if it does and back that story up with the information you can use to justify what you’ve claimed. Don’t spin numbers that won’t stand up in a public debate. Be transparent and forthcoming about the benefits you bring so these stands robust in the court of public opinion.
Ensure your communication methods are sophisticated and provide two-way contact. Things need to be responsive, and able to be responded to, so consider the various platforms on and offline that can help you harness people’s views and communicate with them effectively and regularly.
Be aware there are plenty of communities marked by oil and gas options and today they are well versed in how to mobilise ‘Lock the Gate’ style campaigns if you don’t get your stakeholder communication piece right. Even locations open to oil and gas projects have high expectations of how they’ll be brought along the journey and made to feel part of the conversation.
It’s therefore essential for you to have a suite of engagement solutions before you enter a relationship with stakeholders, as well as a firm understanding of what they expect: from more interactivity and accountability from you to better access to your project team. Don’t let something as easily remedied as poor engagement fail your oil and gas project.