Communicating effectively with the general public always has been a challenging task for the oil industry, but different groups within the industry are now looking for more meaningful communication methods.
Red Cavaney, president and chief executive officer of the American Petroleum Institute, is canvassing the country with some suggestions -- answers? -- speaking to any oil company or organization interested in making their communications more effective.
One group was the AAPG Corporate Liaison Committee, which met during the AAPG annual meeting in San Antonio.
"This method is about unlocking communications opportunities so you can do a better job of conveying what you do," Cavaney told committee members.
"I have been the head of three other natural resource-based industry organizations, and all have had the same challenge -- how do you take products that are typically thought of in an unusual way and communicate that product in a fashion that people understand, through something that is relevant to them?
"If you can do that, you eventually will make the task of getting policy outcomes to go your way much easier."
The values-based communications approach had its beginnings in the late 1970s with Richard Wirthlin at Berkeley. Wirthlin spearheaded campaign research for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and went to Washington, D.C., as his pollster. The technique was first used in a big way on Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984.
"After the two conventions in August of 1984, Reagan and Mondale were in a statistical dead heat -- just three statistical points divided them," Cavaney said. "There were still some fairly big conflict issues -- like a sluggish economy -- that could have harmed Reagan's campaign, so the campaign staff decided to employ this values-based model.
"They figured out what Reagan's strengths were, what the opponents strengths were on a values chain and, to use a basketball analogy, they got to the spot on the floor before Mondale," said Cavaney, who served as deputy assistant to the president for public liaison during part of the Reagan administration.
"The end result," he added, "was the largest landslide in the history of presidential politics."
Most people consider advertising and communications fairly simple -- you make the best argument for your product over a competitor's.
"However, the task we are talking about is triply more difficult," he said. "What we're trying to do in our business is get people who have either a neutral impression of our industry, our products or the policies that affect us and change (them) from neutral to favorable -- and move someone with a negative impression to neutral or positive.
"It's an extraordinarily difficult task," he said, "and the same tools that effectively sell cars or toothpaste don't necessarily work."
One Word: Plastics
Cavaney's first hands-on experience with the values-based communications model was during his years as president of the American Plastics Council.
"In the early 1990s plastics were basically being de-selected," he recalled. "Huge corporations like McDonalds were getting plastics out of their empires, and this loss of market share was a huge concern."
For years the industry had tried everything with an open checkbook and still couldn't turn this situation around, he said, "so we asked Wirthlin if he could do for a non-profit organization what he had already successfully done in politics and consumer products."
After conducting extensive research, Wirthlin Worldwide showed that plastic had such superior performance characteristics that if all the other problems could be solved and the industry could get in the same favorability band as its competitors, then plastics would prevail.
"As with most natural resource industries, the biggest problem was environmental issues," Cavaney said. "When we started the project in 1992, 10 percent of people were anti-plastic when it came to the environment and 17 percent were pro-plastic. By November 1998, after launching its advertising campaign, those numbers had turned around to 33 percent with a pro-plastic bias with regard to the environment, and just 8 percent with an anti-plastic bias."
That advertising campaign was so successful that it's the only time the American Advertising Research Foundation ever awarded its gold medal to a not-for-profit organization.
"Can we do the same thing for the oil industry?" he asked. "We can certainly apply the same values-based communications method, but we don't have to take the same approach the plastics industry did.
"The policy makers had discounted that industry, so they had to go right to the general public and change attitudes. We are not in that same predicament. We have the luxury of not spending huge amounts of money on a major advertising campaign -- but we do need to find a better, more disciplined way to communicate so that over time we can achieve the same kind of results."
Logic and Emotion
Through his research, Wirthlin has identified a list of personal values people hold worldwide, but only about eight of these values can be held strongly at any given time -- and they change very slowly over time, unlike public opinion research.
This is significant, Cavaney said, because it gives you confidence to embark on a communications campaign that will not get stale in a short period of time.
In fact, API's member companies agreed to fund this research because it can sit on the shelf and be used by any segment of the industry for years.
The first important concept to understand in the values-based communications approach is that a strategic hinge exists that links the petroleum industry and its products to target audiences in positive and personally relevant terms.
Identifying the best means to activate the hinge is the purpose of strategic communications research.
"In addition, there is a communications ladder that has two components -- to communicate effectively you must have a rational component and an emotional component," he said. "Wirthlin's research for API showed that our industry has a great deal of the rational but virtually no emotional component. The secret is to have both and to link the rational and emotional components together.
"You start with perceived beliefs about or traits of an issue. This gets you on the 'perceived' same page with your audience," he continued.
"Then you can move up to the functional benefits your audience derives from the traits or beliefs about an issue -- now they are with you a little stronger and you're starting to win them over. This is the time to move to the emotional components."
First, identify the emotional or social benefits derived from the issues or functional benefits, Cavaney said, then finally you move your audience to the stable, enduring personal values that are dear to them.
"Again, you must have rational and emotional components to your communications, and they must be positive and personally relevant," he stressed. "If you get no other message from this approach you will still be ahead of where you were before in terms of making your arguments persuadable.
"You persuade by reason, you motivate by emotion."
Room for Improvement?
One of the issues Wirthlin Worldwide researched last October for API was the oil and gas industry's favorability compared to several other industries.
On a scale from 1 to 100 -- where 1 means an extremely cold or negative feeling toward the industry and 100 means extremely favorable -- the oil and gas industry fared rather well with a 71 from the general public and 66 from opinion leaders, second only to electric utilities.
"We have been called the American Petroleum Institute for years, but we had a suspicion that the general public didn't really understand what petroleum is -- and our research confirmed that," Cavaney said. "So in our communications we now use the term 'oil and gas' instead of petroleum."
In terms of industry credibility, the oil and natural gas business again fared well at 66.
However, it did not fare nearly so well when respondents were asked about environmental concerns.
Based on the research, Wirthlin developed a target matrix on the industry's environmental image. The matrix showed that 18 percent of the general public and 29 percent of opinion leaders polled agreed that the oil and gas industry is not causing environmental problems and actually is helping to solve environmental problems, while 15 percent of the general public and 13 percent of opinion leaders believe the industry is causing environmental problems and not helping to solve environmental problems.
"What this shows us is that we have a much higher standing with opinion leaders than the general public, which is good news because we can work through opinion leaders to influence the general public," Cavaney said. "This gives us a nice leverage point that impacts our communication approach."
Also, for an industry to be perceived to have the public's interest at heart, certain leadership traits must be aligned with that industry -- you have to be seen as a leader.
"Based on the research, our industry scored high on 'reliable,' 'effective' and 'visionary,' and wasn't too far in the ditch on 'innovative,' 'efficient' and 'trustworthy.' In our messages we need to try and influence the public to bolster the perception on those three -- and hopefully migrate one or two onto firmer ground. That will really solidify our position, helping us convey important messages.
Why is all of this research important? Because, Cavaney said, "it helps identify the most effective means of communicating information on issues important to the industry, and according to the research we aren't doing a very good job of communicating. Only 17 percent of people polled believe the oil and gas industry is effective in communicating product information, and even 58 percent of opinion leaders believe we can do a better job.
"So shouldn't we be trying?"
Blueprint for Success
Based on the Wirthlin research, API has developed a values map, which is a sort of blueprint of how people think about the industry. Key conceptual pathways on the map show how to connect from the rational, attribute level to the emotional, values level.
These pathways become the individual values ladder the industry can use to develop communications -- and each ladder is a template for the message elements the oil and gas industry should use in communicating about a given issue.
For effective communications the industry must use this values "map," which is very stable over time -- especially at the emotional consequence and values levels -- in conjunction with issues templates to address current issues that have been aligned with the five dominant themes gleaned from research.
As new issues arise they can be added based in logic or through new survey information.
"The goals of effective communications are reinforcing your base, moving swing groups and inoculating against opposition -- (and) the issues templates address that strategy," Cavaney said.
"To reinforce our base, the oil and gas industry should focus on the issues of improving people's quality of life and empowering society. The issues template designed to move swing groups focuses on good citizenship.
"The areas we should absolutely avoid addressing initially are environmental responsibility and ample supply," he added. "Those are the areas of greatest opposition where we have little credibility, so you must move up the ladders with other issues and then bridge laterally into these more volatile arenas."
Cavaney said researchers were surprised by the negative attitudes toward the oil and gas industry's ability to provide ample supplies of petroleum products.
"The public has great concerns about access to oil and gas products, and this is an issue we should definitely work at improving," he said, "because our practices in this area are sound -- it's just the public's understanding that is limited."
Work to Do
All of this research conducted for API, and the values-based communication strategy developed based on the research, is not just pie in the sky stuff. Six member companies of API and two other associations have taken the next step and asked Wirthlin to help design a more specific communications plan for their needs.
The pipeline industry is one of those groups. In 2002 the pipeline renewal act must be pushed through Congress, and that industry is building its strategic, values-based communications plan to help people get comfortable with the idea that pipelines are safe, protect the environment and deliver great value to many segments of society.
"The pipeline industry can take the general research conducted for API and do only a modest amount of research specifically on pipelines to develop a strategy," Cavaney noted. "We hope other segments of the industry can also use this research as a starting point for developing their own strategies.
"Values-based communication is a powerful tool, and we are making it available to any company or organization because this business isn't about one group speaking for the entire industry," he said.
"We all have to do our part."