CALGARY, Alta. – ENERGY- Canada’s oil and gas sector needs a new senior executive – a chief story officer or CSO. The creation of this senior position is critical to assertively respond to the industry’s biggest challenge beyond crushing commodity prices: its reputation and, by extension, its future.
Never mind fretting about the social licence to operate, external dynamics are rapidly shifting to the social licence to exist.
The industry has great stories to tell but it’s a poor storyteller. That failing exacerbates an already challenging confluence of government policy, public opinion and shrill opposition.
The notion of storytelling sits uneasily with corporate leaders whose perspectives are shaped by concepts and constructs more technical than social.
Even as opposition was gaining momentum to oil and gas development years ago, industry leadership generally scoffed at the concept of communicating through storytelling. It preferred to let science and the facts show that it was up to good and not harm.
In reality, the upstream sector has too long suffered from a debilitating combination of hubris and naiveté about the need to communicate.
Rarely, however, do science and the facts make for compelling stories when told ineffectually – especially when in the public sphere they’re so easily countered by opposing science and facts.
Storytelling is an art and a science. And both are about timing, creativity and audience. The art and the science together compel audiences to listen and, ultimately, come to some form of deeper understanding.
Storytelling is a powerful narrative that allows people to make sense of the world around them, creating a foundation to the meaning of their lives.
And here’s an important distinction: storytelling is communication but communication is not necessarily storytelling.
That’s a critical nuance.
Why? Storytellers are trusted.
If you aren’t trusted, you’re simply a lobbyist, a propagandist or a politician. These folks think they’re telling stories to be sure, but rarely does trust factor into the listening equation because these narrators lack authenticity.
What’s core to a good story and why is trust so important in the process?
It is all about meaning and how meaning gets made.
Meaning doesn’t get made by shovelling numbers at someone (a typical industry predisposition) or by pointing at someone else’s performance, say environmental, that is perhaps poorer than your own.
Meaning is why something matters. That’s why so many of the industry’s opponents are winning the storytelling war. They understand that people make meaning emotively – their perspective on an issue depends on how they feel about it.
So when storytellers use numbers, for example, they use them to create outrage and anger, casting the energy sector as regressive.
So what would the chief story officer’s role be?
First, to start collecting and cataloguing the fantastic sets of stories the industry has to tell. There are environmental stories and technology stories. There are tales of innovation and dramatic progress. If told effectively – in the right context, by the right tellers – these stories could help the sector regain the public’s confidence.
The CSO will have a tough task convincing corporate power brokers that storytelling can carry the day. And we know that the higher the corporate level from which storytelling is attempted, the more likely it is to find a disinterested audience. The CSO, rather, will need to convince senior management that rank-and-file staff will carry the day at soccer fields, neighbourhood barbecues and chance shopping encounters. Those are the places where the best stories are told and believed.
Storytelling is a powerful way for industry to build trust with the folks who consume its products, in particular those Canadians who are undecided.
NEXT: Some examples of those industry stories, told in a way that builds trust.
Bill Whitelaw is president and CEO at JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group.