By Evalyn M. Shea, President and Founder, Shea Writing and Training Solutions Inc. Multiple studies confirm what we in the oil and gas industry already know: our industry has a tarnished image and a bad reputation. News of record-breaking profits in the oil and gas industry is met with derision, yet when a technology company breaks profit records, everyone cheers. Sadly, mistakes and accidents happen. When these happen at an overseas manufacturing plant, at a sugar plant, on a cruise ship, or to an airplane manufacturer, there is a temporary loss of reputation; but the whole industry isn’t tarnished. When an incident occurs in the oil and gas industry, there is renewed vitriol that fuels ongoing and continual contempt, anger, and scorn. Why is that? For over 20 years, I have worked in the oil and gas industry and have met thousands of people who work in it. I have never met anyone who didn’t care deeply about safety for people and for the environment. Most of the people I have met and worked with are nice people, too—the kind you’d be pleased to invite home for dinner or out to watch a ballgame. I don’t think it is the people who are disliked individually, but somehow when we are grouped together in an industry, we are painted in the worst light. Does this hurt us? Yes. Just look at the current and growing shortage of people to work in this industry. Our poor reputation makes it difficult for us to do our jobs on the macro level, and it creates an inefficient use of resources and human capital. It is important for us as an industry to improve our image and our reputation. This may seem a daunting task, but I believe not only that we can, but we must do it. How? As an industry and as individuals (people and corporations), we must be willing to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable means not being defensive. It means being willing to engage in open and honest dialogue. It means admitting mistakes, and it means admitting that we might not know it all. Being vulnerable may sound risky, but we are used to risk. Our industry is filled with risk. We risk millions of dollars searching for oil and gas, and we don’t always find what we seek. Many of the activities we engage in are inherently risky to human life and the environment. We have learned from past incidents and have developed safeguards to prevent and mitigate future risk. Yet we don’t talk about this outside of our industry. To the outsider, we are perceived as an industry that doesn’t value human life or the environment and that reaps tremendous profits from the land and pockets of everyone else. We can change this perception by being more open and sharing our whole story. This means really listening to what those outside the industry are saying about us. Invite them to industry conferences. Don’t just show them what we are doing – include them in the discussion. We need to listen to their concerns and demonstrate a thoughtful response to their arguments. By being respectful, we open the door to sharing our ideas. Let’s use that open door and be transparent about what we are doing. Yes, the industry sometimes makes big profits, but these profits are needed to fund exploration and research and to offset potential big losses. We can admit that we don’t know it all and that we sometimes fail. We are not invincible. But that makes us more human, more approachable. After all, people tend to cheer for the underdog. By being vulnerable, we demonstrate our courage and strength in a way that makes us accessible – not closed, hostile, or self-justifying. With a collaborative open and honest dialogue, we can debate the value of independence from foreign sources of oil and gas and evaluate the risks we are willing to undertake for that independence. By being open to discussion, we create a pathway to talk about the benefits we all derive from the oil and gas industry. An educated public can better weigh the pros and cons in the debate so that together we can create the best results for us as a nation, not just as individuals, special interests, or an industry. It is clear that the current approach isn’t working. We must do more. We must do whatever it takes, and that means we must be willing to be vulnerable. What is the worst that can happen? We are already at the bottom of the list in terms of reputation and image. Our society’s dependence on the oil and gas industry for fuel, energy, and products will not go away, in spite of those who would wish it otherwise. We can afford to take the risk of being vulnerable because we know that the law of supply and demand proves that our industry will not go away in our lifetimes. Our rewards are a positive image, a valued reputation, and a cooperative environment. There will always be people on both sides of any issue, some of whom are dogmatic, refusing to budge from their opinions. By being vulnerable and opening up to real and honest dialogue, we as an industry can make the transition from defensive posturing to a more collaborative, cooperative future. About the author: Evalyn M. Shea is president and founder of Shea Writing and Training Solutions, Inc., a technical writing and training company providing services to the oil and gas industry since 1997.
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