PR gets slippery for oil giants

Posted on: 2013-05-15 in Opinion   |   Tagged: industry watch jess matthias

Jess Matthias (@maticah5 and @wordville) a PR account director at London-based communications agency Wordville, addresses this week's oil industry PR nightmare.

NameIt seems the business news this week has all been about oil and gas. It was revealed yesterday that several oil industry heavyweights had been raided by European Commission officials amid concerns that they “may have colluded in reporting distorted prices.” Another month, another crisis for energy PR folk…

Essentially, what this suspected price rigging means for the poor cash-strapped public is that they may well have been paying over the odds on fuel and suffering the knock on effects of increased food costs. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the oil industry; the UK government has just announced it will be scrapping fuel duty hikes in a bid to save motorists a couple of pence per litre of fuel. Should have been a popular move with the public. But, thanks to BP, Shell and the like, the excess motorists have been paying all this time could have been adding up to far more than any government-sanctioned saving they might enjoy.

Although the perpetrators have yet to be confirmed by the EC, both Shell and BP have announced that they are “fully co-operating” with investigations. The revelations were unanimously described by media as a “PR disaster” for Shell – two words the company has no doubt become acutely familiar with over the past few years.

Bad timing

The timing of this investigation poses a communications dilemma for Shell; this is also the week it hosts the Powering Progress conference in Rotterdam, which brings together businesses and government to discuss the “future of energy”. You can imagine the satire that could penetrate blogs and opinion columns in the world’s media… Not to mention the Chinese whispers doing the rounds at the event itself.

Should Shell tackle the story head-on and acknowledge the EC investigations at the conference? If it does, it could risk dampening the feel-good factor that is a primary purpose of the annual event. But the alternative would be to keep schtum and ignore the particularly large, big-eared grey animal trumpeting loudly in the corner of the room – not a particularly good strategy for a company that likes to “stimulate discussion” in order to “meet the world’s energy needs.”

Oh, the irony

The real challenge will be mediating the message in communications with media following the conference. The company wants to be seen as an industry shaper, and an organisation that has a commitment towards enterprise and the environment.  Behind-the-scenes price fixing doesn’t fit the image of a company that cares.  The irony is that it recently staged its European Eco Marathon, a competition that sees 3,000 students compete to make their own vehicles travel the furthest on the least amount of energy. Some might applaud these students’ innovations for their engineering expertise; others might just be glad the company is finally providing a cost-effective way to get around.

There is some comfort for Shell, BP and the like. Following the string of catastrophic events they have been at the centre of over the past few years, they must have an A-Z of ready-made crisis communications plans stashed away in company files. A quick flip to “P for Price Rigging” should help.  It’s right between “O for oil spills” and “Q for quicksand”.

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The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog is managed by B2B PR specialist Heather Baker, founder TopLine Comms, an inbound marketingB2B content marketing agency and proud HubSpot partner agency and takes contribution from anyone sensible in the industry with something intelligent to say.  Follow Heather on Twitter @TopLineFounder or contact the B2B PR Blog editorial team via email on [email protected].


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