Mixing oil, wikis, and blogs

Nov. 5, 2007
New media-like wikis, blogs, social networking, and tagging tools-raise interesting questions about how businesses should utilize them.

New media-like wikis, blogs, social networking, and tagging tools-raise interesting questions about how businesses should utilize them. Can new media improve communication, decision-making, and innovation within companies? How do they affect relationships between a business and its customers?

These issues are particularly pertinent for the petroleum industry, which is misunderstood as greedy and selfish. An unfavorable image has made it difficult to attract talented workers, especially in technical and engineering roles, and hold rational public debates about energy policy.

Nevertheless, oil companies are using new media tools for training employees and building relationships with the public.

BP PLC, for example, will become part of the online gaming community, SimCity Societies, in a new partnership with Electronic Arts. BP will offer a game in which players “build” power plants and can choose options such as wind, gas, and hydrogen instead of conventional energy sources, affecting emission levels within their virtual societies. The game encourages people to learn about causes and consequences of global warming in an educational and meaningful way.

Social networking

Chevron Corp. supports debate about a variety of energy topics on its social networking site, willyoujoinus.com, which was launched 18 months ago. It also sends bloggers information about the company and its issues.

A Chevron spokesman said: “Dealing with new media and, in the case of willyoujoinus.com, actually creating a new media vehicle, lets us engage with a much wider and nontraditional group of stakeholders. We think this is critical as part of our objective to create more ‘energy literacy’ among people who create and/or influence energy policy.”

BP has also launched training for staff members via Second Life, the virtual community where individuals can create alternative lives depending on their level of membership. Presently it claims to have over 8 million registered residents. BP is using simulation environments to train tank-truck drivers in maneuvering around a forecourt. It also holds meetings in Second Life rooms that replicate BP’s offices in the real world to foster creative problem-solving and link employees who would otherwise feel disconnected in a teleconference.

Despite these examples, Ralph Kappler, director and founder of Halo Energy, an energy and marketing communications firm, told OGJ that the energy industry is not doing enough to engage with a wider range of audiences. “Sometimes the industry gets proactive when in fact there is still very little to show (or proof for that matter), e.g. with so-called ‘clean coal’ or ‘clean nuclear’.”

The difficulty for energy companies is striking the right balance: They cannot be seen as Goliaths hijacking new technologies on networking sites, which have been personally designed for social interaction. Consequently, many networking forums are unlikely to welcome forays by the corporate world into their spheres.

Consistent message

A company must have a clear and consistent message before it uses these innovative tools. The scale of new media and targeting communications in a relevant way is a major challenge. Kappler cautions that “message and user reactions are based on instant, ‘split-of-a second’ decisions and feedback.” Without a robust communications strategy, he adds, a company can find it risky to rush into new media to try solving communications problems it didn’t address effectively in standard media like print, advertising, and TV.

Research by professional services firm KPMG shows that many companies are using new technologies. The main barriers are security concerns, confidentiality, and in some countries cultural and legal issues. Indeed, even organizational culture can hinder progress if senior managers struggle to understand how to reap the benefits of modern technologies. “Companies need to be alert to the dangers that free comment made in wikis and blogs may be libelous or infringe employee rights laws,” said Crispin O’Brien, head of technology at KPMG.

Energy companies are cautiously monitoring how online media are evolving and how they can best use them to communicate with wider audiences. But their confidence needs to increase quickly as public debates intensify about climate change, high energy prices, and energy efficiency. Using new media to create and maintain existing relationships with various target groups requires many participants and regular postings. Investing in these demand commitment: The work of communicating has, ironically, become harder