Companies in the energy sector all around the world are facing an old problem in a new way. They are having trouble building the kind of consensus that gets their projects approved, financed and built.
From the much-debated Keystone pipeline in the US Midwest, now in an approvals process that has lasted longer than the American involvement in World War Two, to offshore wind farms proposed for Europe and large scale efficiency investments in China; The energy sector keeps running into problems that go beyond the usual issues of scale, cost and complexity, which already make energy and related infrastructure investments difficult.
A change in communications strategies driven by technology has eliminated old ways of building consensus for energy projects among regulators, investors, impacted communities and even among project partners. A global recession and a glut of cheap natural gas in the US has masked some of the problem, but as the world’s energy architecture cries out for renewal – for resolution of the greater security, sustainability and accessibility needs identified by the World Energy Council as the sector’s “trilemma” – the push to update energy sector communications strategies will become acute.
This isn’t the first time that the energy sector has faced this kind of consensus formation crisis. The initial boom in oil development that created the modern international oil companies like Shell, ExxonMobil and others was followed by a period of public backlash fueled by new national media that gave expression to concerns about tradeoffs between private ownership of energy and the public good. The industry responded ably to that challenge; the work of Ivy Lee as the face of the Rockefeller oil companies in building public consensus around the long-term good of private resource development, remains the old textbook for energy company communications.
But new communications technology requires new approaches. The incredible growth and evolution of social media in its varying forms means companies need to be much more proactive, iterative and direct in their communications approaches. This is necessary in order to establish the kind of consensus that gets deals done, projects greenlighted and jobs created.
More forward-thinking energy organizations have begun to do this. A good example is the American Petroleum Institute , which leverages social media to directly engage with audiences that can influence decision makers on projects important to API’s members. Another example is the New York Energy Week, where we have worked to surface an influential community of professionals who never previously identified themselves as belonging to the energy sector. Helping that community prioritize and move toward action on issues important to it is the goal of our second New York Energy Week in June 2014.
I grew up at the intersection of energy, politics and communications, and that background has shaped my career in the energy sector. My mission is to help energy companies use the astounding gift of new communications technologies in linking their communication practices to underlying business goals, and to form the kinds of consensus that accelerates decision-making and closes deals.
The energy sector needs to stop hiding behind traditional ways of talking about itself and start forming the kinds of technology-aided movements that will propel its business ambitions to fruition.
Peter Gardett is a consensus formation solutions expert for the global energy sector. He founded Breaking Energy and is an entrepreneur in residence at the NY State Energy Research and Development Authority, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Founding Board Member of New York Energy Week.