We’re certainly living in unusual times, and changing circumstances impacting the majority of the world’s population bring new challenges. From an energy industry perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted on travel and industrial activity, significantly affecting demand. At the same time, the oil industry has been grappling to manage an oversupply, which, for the first time ever, led to negative oil prices earlier this year. Against this backdrop and the climate change ambitions of many nations, the energy transition continues apace and there are calls for accelerated renewable energy deployment in the post-COVID-19 world. As PR professionals, we are working in uncertain times; not only for our chosen sector, but for ourselves. Here are our top tips for adapting and continuing to deliver compelling returns.
Brush up on your digital skills. Many companies in the energy sector operate internationally and have stakeholders located around the world, so it is more important than ever to be familiar with online conferencing tools, such as Microsoft Teams, Webex and Zoom. To ensure the best communication, you must know your way confidently around these tools and be able to use them to share your messages.
Consider how best you can deliver stakeholder engagement via digital platforms. Face to face consultations may no longer be possible, but you can use digital tools to reach a larger audience. For example, presentation material created for a cancelled exhibition can be repurposed as the theme for a webinar, or a podcast or even the subject of a short video. It’s easy for such presentations to become ‘preach and teach’ sessions, so give some thought as to how you can encourage people to engage and feel part of the project. If done live, incorporating a comments box for written questions or breaking up the presentation with a listeners’ poll with multiple answers to a particular topic can help boost audience engagement.
Make your social media work harder for you. Now is a great time to think about and analyse how your social media channels and posts are performing. Get right into the analytics. Are you reaching the right people? Is the content you’re creating compelling enough? Is it all about what you want to say, or does it answer the needs of your target personas? How will their needs change in a post-COVID-19 world? In the oil and gas industry specifically, the return to low commodity prices has increased the focus on cost and value so it’s important to make sure your content answers these questions.
With large numbers working from home, we have never been more reliant on reliable broadband, home heating and lighting. Remind customers of your critical infrastructure and key worker designations, your role in helping everyone through the crisis, investments you are making in the energy transition and the ‘green economic recovery’. You can personalise this by sharing stories of your key workers and the part they play in delivering reliable utilities.
Celebrate your staff for the role they play. With staff on furlough and potential concerns about redundancy as the furlough scheme is reduced, particularly among companies in the oil and gas sector, it’s likely they’ve had to step up and some will be struggling to adjust to the new circumstances. Remind them, and your customers, of their value and importance.
Increase your internal communications to account for the distance between your teams. Some staff will rely on you for updates on the changing Government guidance and how that impacts them and their colleagues. Reassure them that their safety and that of their families is central to your decision making and help them stay in touch with new energy infrastructure developments, planning permissions, critical maintenance etc. by sharing images and stories from frontline workers.
Consider how you recreate the ‘water cooler’ moment, where staff would ‘bump into’ each other and catch up socially. This is incredibly difficult to manage digitally without it feeling contrived, but it’s very important, particularly for your most sociable members of staff. Ask staff to support peers, increase cross-departmental team working on projects and offer social events, such as staff quizzes, or a post-work cocktail hour.
Review your emergency response (ER) / crisis comms processes and procedures. The kind of emergencies and crises that you were used to dealing as an energy industry PR professional may have changed or become more wide-ranging. What would your comms response be to an outbreak of COVID-19 at an onshore facility, on a vessel or on an offshore platform? Do your ER/crisis comms procedures cover such an instance? Certainly, the way you communicate with different stakeholders will have changed. Do you and your colleagues need additional training so you can deal with whatever the new normal throws at you?
Don’t lock down on creativity. Working away in separate locations can inhibit the sharing of ideas – especially when you know your colleagues are busy. You may have more time to think about things, but you also need to be able to bounce ideas off others to come up with the best solutions. The fact that we work in an industry with many ‘me too’ companies means the strategies and tactics we use to PR our clients can be the differentiator from their competitors.
Keep communicating with your stakeholders. Arguably, communication is even more important now than it was pre-COVID-19 as companies make their customers aware that they are still operating successfully. E-mail will remain the most direct way for energy companies to communicate externally. But it’s important to have a strong call to action otherwise your e-mail will remain unopened.
We work in what is often a risk-averse industry, with complex purchasing procedures and a strong focus on process - but that doesn’t mean the opportunities to delight our stakeholders are any less than in any other business vertical. Yes, COVID-19 has impacted our daily working routines, but every challenge presents an opportunity. Governments across the world are calling for a ‘green economic recovery’ which puts the energy sector at the heart of the solution. It’s up to us as energy PR professionals to ensure that our organisations and our sector embrace and benefit from this extraordinary moment in time.