In the age of aggressive property rights protection and citizen journalism, constructing new pipelines and improving existing lines has become ever more challenging.
Pipeline projects, often hundreds of miles in length, can cross many governmental jurisdictions, each with its own regulations and requirements. Every step of the process is becoming more public and widely covered by news media and social media.
From the moment an open season is announced, issues begin to arise. By the time the right-of-way agents hit the local courthouses for research, communications may already be running behind. The official in the records office will monitor their research and inform their colleagues. Landowners may also be alerted that a line is headed their way. As we all know, this affects negotiations for right of way and can define the project from the start.
An integrated approach
When companies begin the planning for a new pipeline, communications and public outreach should be included, as well as a budget for sup porting the associated activities. Public outreach has been included in years past but mostly as a compliance issue and not considered for anything more than meeting standards.
In today’s environment, it is critical that a proactive plan be developed. With easy access to information and a litigation-leaning public more aware through social media, even pipeline construction in existing rights of way may become highly controversial.
The business development team, the project and operations team, the right-of-way team and construction teams must all work together with a public relations team to create an integrated plan to ensure consistent communications, effective engagement, and ultimately, a successful project. This integrated approach to public affairs will create a smoother path to completed construction.
Local issues on the rise
Pipelines pass through various local governments. In some areas with extensive energy industry experience, these counties have become more assertive in governing all aspects of actions in their communities. From crew camps to transportation to pipelines, they have established requirements, including bonds, safety and security issues and more.
Even counties with little experience with pipelines have heard from their neighbors and may follow suit with local government regulation and requirements.
It is best that these items are dealt with in the early phases of the project. We have seen some of the following requirements:
• Bonds as high as $10,000 to $25,000 to cover any roads that may be damaged during the construction process;
• Load limits and routes that demand that trucks carrying pipe travel through less direct routes;
• Safety and security measures that may be costly to the project, including having 24-hour security during construction, and may include sharing plans with local first responders; and
• A requirement to provide data on the economic impact of the line through the area.
This is just a sampling of some of the issues that may arise during construction. It is imperative that the legal and public affairs teams assess these potential issues prior to completion of the budget and all issues along the route are known.
Lack of attention to this increased involvement from local governments may delay costs and timing of the project. Further, we have seen several projects enter litigation that can further delay projects.
A solid solution
Facing local challenges across the distance of a pipeline is time-consuming work. It is best to work with a public affairs team (internal or external) to develop a solid government affairs, public outreach and media campaign.
Government affairs should build a complete and thorough database of all elected officials on the planned route of the line. The database must be comprehensive. If possible, it is best to work with maps that allow the team to determine which districts the line might cross for county commissioners, state legislators and members of Congress.
It is often the district or local offices that are the first line of contact for unhappy citizens along a route. It is best if the staff and/or elected officials are aware of the project and have a contact to call when questions or complaints arise.
The public affairs and project teams should develop a communications policy for elected officials. It should clearly delineate who is allowed to speak to them on behalf of the project. The policy will also include key messages on the project as well as anticipated questions that might arise during meetings.
The policy becomes most critical when representatives from different functional areas of the project may be contacting elected officials. Some pipeline companies allow their right-of-way people to make the initial contact with elected officials. If this is the case, they should be fully briefed and prepared to report back to the project team with any specific concerns. At times, an elected official and/or their designated person may have ongoing conversations with the company’s legal department, public affairs team, construction crews and more.
An information packet should be prepared to leave with elected officials for in-person meetings. The packet should contain maps of the entire project as well as specific communities or jurisdictions. It should have a detail sheet with public specifics of the project such as distance and background information on the company.
When these officials are acknowledged along a route, the process of working with them during the construction period becomes much easier and manageable. A proactive approach will save time and money as compared to reactive approaches later in the process. A clear policy on interaction with these officials is critical.
‘Stop or I’ll tweet’
The interest of the news media in any hint of controversy has only increased Topics over the last decade. While this is true for the traditional media, it becomes even more intense when we add in social media and the fact that cameras are everywhere in our daily lives. It takes so little time to be proactive with media and so very much time to be reactive. One bad tweet may send a project and a company into a whirlwind of activity and will likely be picked up and shared by traditional media.
As with governmental affairs and contact, planning is the key to success. When planning your project, be sure that media relations activities are included in the budget. They may be added with public affairs and one team should be able to handle combined activities.
The following are steps that should be taken to plan for media relations:
• Build a solid database of all traditional media along the route. This should include all print publications as well as broadcast outlets. In rural areas, it is important to define their assigned media market as most do not have their own. They are usually connected to the nearest “larger” market. For example, many rural communities in West Texas are connected to Midland/Odessa or Abilene. It is important to have all of this information collected and gathered in one place.
• Identify bloggers and social media influencers along the route. In large media markets, these folks often break stories. In smaller markets, they may make the news. A comprehensive list of these influencers will be critical to communications and to monitoring efforts.
• Develop a comprehensive list of groups that need to be covered. Many localities now use sites like Nextdoor. These sites are an ideal place to position your own updates on the project. They serve the purpose of community boards.
• A media packet should be prepared with basic information on the project. As well, statements on land acquisition issues and other anticipated concerns should be prepared and it will ease execution.
• Some media issues will arise that cannot be anticipated.
These tools are just the start of the media relations process.
How to handle media
Another crucial step in the process is to realize that anyone along the line—from right of way to construction crews to leadership—may be approached by media or social media. It is imperative to create a defined media contact process and have all persons involved with the line prepared to follow the necessary steps.
• Create a clearly defined media process. Who on the project will speak with media? Who will receive and research initial media inquiries? Will a statement or interview be the best response?
• Once the plan is created, share it with everyone involved in the project.
• Create pocket cards that crews in the field may keep on them. They can hand the card to the inquirer or provide the contact numbers.
• If someone is detected taking unauthorized photos on a site, please approach them and provide them with the card. It is best to connect with them than to see pictures on social media.
Media monitoring
Monitoring the media is also critical during the project. Both traditional and digital media need to be monitored on a consistent basis.
• Once the database is created, establish a comprehensive monitoring process. Stories in publications in smaller communities may not be picked up via traditional monitoring. Thus, it is often necessary to actually review them on a weekly basis.
• Create a dashboard and utilize advanced social media monitoring tools to watch for conversations about the project online. These efforts will help identify trends and discussions.
• Monitor the comments on any stories that run in publications. These comments, often associated with online coverage, will often quote inaccurate information.
A well-executed project is one that goes in-service on time and on budget. Without effective communications from the beginning, that is a nearly impossible goal to achieve. And beyond time lines and budgets, a pipeline project also represents a commitment to being neighbors in every community along the route for decades to come. Getting off on the right foot not only supports the construction goals, but also creates goodwill that can help support future operations involving expansions, incidents or maintenance.