“Last count, I figured I’ve got somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 landowners in the U.S. that have my cell phone number ... I’m very proud of the fact that I can send out widespread communications to thousands of people and say, ‘If you have any questions, if you have any concerns, feel free to call me at any time.’ And that is my personal cell phone number; that’s the same number that my wife calls me on.”

So says Andrew Craig, land manager with TransCanada Corp., owner of the Keystone Pipeline System. Craig has put his finger on a frequently ignored or underrated element of successful pipeline project management—effective communication.

Pipeline construction often faces opposition from environmentalists, government officials, landowners and citizens’ groups. The result can be delays, project changes, increased costs and even project cancellations.

One way to minimize or handle that opposition is by communicating with a variety of audiences before, during and after a project. This article outlines some communication strategies for the three phases of any pipeline project: planning, construction and operating.

Planning stage

First, involve your communications professionals. In many companies, communication is an afterthought. The public relations professionals are called in when a news release has to be written or when a problem surfaces. Avoid this mistake.

In the early planning stage of your pipeline project—well before word of it goes public—get your communications professionals involved. They can help you anticipate and manage opposition, identify critical audiences and help develop and fine-tune messages that need to be communicated. If you don’t have a communications function, find an outside consultant or agency, preferably one with a track record of successfully managing issues or campaigns and one that understands both traditional and new media.

Maximize credibility transference—The overriding goal of any communication is to establish trust and credibility. If your audience doesn’t see you as trustworthy or credible, you won’t get your message across or be able to address their concerns. You can enhance credibility by coordinating your project or forming alliances with other credible sources. The Clintons did this during the Monica Lewinsky scandal when they vacationed with Walter Cronkite and made sure they were photographed with “the most trusted man in America.”

For example, issue joint communications with others. Or, quote supporting statements from credible sources, such as:

  • Local citizens who are viewed as neutral, respected and well-informed on the issue;
  • Professors, especially from respected local universities;
  • Environmental and safety professionals;
  • Nonprofit organizations; and
  • Your own employees. Hourly and middle- and lower-management employees are perceived to have more credibility than does senior management.

Seek out thought leaders—Every community has its “influentials,” individuals or organizations that busy people look to for guidance—especially on complex issues. Take time to brief them, preferably in person, on your project. Thought leaders can include:

  • Federal, state and local government officials;
  • Members of chambers of commerce, Rotary Club, etc.;
  • Religious leaders;
  • Neighboring businesses; and
  • News media. Most print and broadcast news outlets will give you an opportunity to conduct an editorial briefing for their editors and reporters who will be following your project—and perhaps commenting on it in an opinion piece.

Communicate with the community—One of the most challenging, time-consuming yet critical, activities you’ll face with any pipeline project is communication with the public.

Today, it’s not only the government that gives you permission to operate; it’s the public as well.

Most companies clam up or delay in responding when they are under attack. But those situations call for more communication, not less. There are many ways to communicate with the various external audiences you need to reach. They include public meetings, open houses, one-on-one interactions, traditional news media, social media and more. Regardless of the strategies you use, first and foremost, communicate.

Develop messages that work—As a Houston-based firm, we frequently work with clients in the energy industry. We’re always amazed when they try to win public support for a project by citing such lofty factors as U.S. energy independence, job creation or other economic issues. While these are important, they fail to address what the public wants to know: Will I be safe? Will I be inconvenienced? How will the project affect my property values or quality of life? What’s the environmental impact?

Tailor your messages to the particular audience you’re trying to reach. When it comes to messaging, one size does not fit all.

People who speak plainly generate trust and credibility. They use “language of the living room”—simple words, contractions and uncomplicated sentence structure. This kind of language resonates with people who are fed up with “corporate-speak” and words and phrasing that sound guarded, stiff and like they came from speechwriters. Also, successful communicators avoid jargon, abstractions, technical details and debates, and organizational identity (words such as “the corporation” or “the company,” which reinforce the public’s perception of large corporations and organizations as uncaring, faceless entities).

Research shows that analogies, a comparison of two different things that are alike in some way, are among the most powerful tools of persuasion. They help you get an audience to understand something, especially something complex, or come around to your point of view.

Before Congress opened Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas drilling in late 2017, The Wall Street Journal ran an article urging Congress to permit access to the billions of barrels of recoverable oil located there. The Journal used this analogy in its editorial: “Thanks to modern drilling technology, all of this oil and gas can be developed from a sliver of the state: fewer than 2,000 acres, or less than 0.01% of the wildlife’s acreage. If Alaska were the size of the front of this newspaper, that 2,000-acre footprint would be a single letter.”

Communications will need to change as a project moves forward. Consider these points:

Construction stage

Keep stakeholders informed—During construction, it’s understandable that management’s focus is on getting the pipeline up and operating. But during this phase, your critics don’t necessarily become silent or inactive. Also, the public may have new concerns or questions you need to address. So, keep communications flowing.

Utilize technology—Back in 1982 during the Tylenol product-tampering crisis in which seven people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, Johnson & Johnson had to rely on regular mail and mailgrams to notify thousands of doctors, hospitals, retailers and distributors nationwide about the contaminated capsules. Today, you have social media, a much faster and more efficient way of reaching your target audiences.

Ideally, your organization is already using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. These now-mainstream communication tools enable you to engage quickly and directly with large and small audiences.

Don’t ignore the traditional media—Much is being made of the “decline” of traditional news media. But print and broadcast news outlets still play a role in reaching the public and shaping public opinion. Designate a knowledgeable, charismatic, media-trained individual in your organization as spokesperson for the project. Then have this person respond to media inquiries and seek out interview opportunities.

Operating stage

Communication-related activities are usually ignored or given short shrift once a project is completed. But while communication does wind down, it should not end.

Monitor the media—Monitor whether anything—positive or negative—is being said about your project in the media (letters to the editor, opinion pieces, news and feature stories, blogs, etc.), including social media. There are firms out there that provide this service if you need assistance.

Tell your story—Pipelines are engineering marvels, but most people don’t know how they are built, operated and maintained. Reporters are always looking for story ideas, and the following may just capture their interest:

  • How pipelines are controlled and operated remotely using sophisticated field instrumentation, data gathering and communication systems;
  • How pipelines are inspected and cleaned using pigging; and
  • Technologies and strategies for monitoring pipelines, such as physically walking the lines and using satellite surveillance.

All of the above also make for great YouTube videos, for example.

Contrary to popular opinion, communication is not a “soft skill.” It’s a critical skill that can move the needle when it comes to shaping the public’s view of what is arguably one of the safest, most efficient and cost-effective ways to transport energy.

Ken Haseley is a senior counselor at The Ammerman Experience, a communications training firm.