Why a 12-year-old may be the best candidate for the oil and gas industry's Chief Story Officer

In the final instalment of the energy Chief Story Officer (CSO) series, I explore just who might fill the role of CSO.

This series has argued that that Canada's oil and gas industry needs to turn to storytelling to build trust with ordinary Canadians.

I have notionally argued Canada's energy "C-Suite" should add a CSO to complement its strategic deliberations in terms of communication and outreach. Links to previous articles can be found below. Given the ground this series has tackled, it is suggested the articles be read serially.

David Feick has an intriguing idea: why not make Canada's energy Chief Story Officer a young Canadian?

After all, that is whose generational shoulders upon which the really tough decisions about energy will rest.

If as Canadians we think it's challenging now to wade through complex energy issues, and that the future will somehow be less complicated, we're seriously deluding ourselves. We haven’t come close to the tough talk around energy.

Today's discourse difficulties are a cake walk compared to what future generations will face – and we're doing nothing now constructively to make it any easier for our children and their children.

Bureaucrats. Politicians. Energy companies. Academics. NGOs. Folks who ought to know better.

We're accomplishing little that that binds us together. Instead, it seems we're bent on using Canada’s energy future to plot a path toward national self-destruction.

Shame on us.

Feick, a Calgary-based financial communications expert at LodeRock Advisors, is among the many Canadians intrigued by the notion that in Canada, we have been poor storytellers – and story listeners – when it comes to energy matters.

Feick should know. He’s worked within the sector for years and understands well the extensive “library” of stories that no one is reading – stories that would almost certainly throw a different light on a progressive sector.

Yet now we're paying the price of the polarization that defines the energy conversation; one result is policy frameworks empty of substantive content when it comes to balancing energy, the economy and the environment.

Feick believes that better grassroots storytelling will help ordinary Canadians come to know energy better – and in turn, learn to trust the energy sector and themselves, in terms of energy consciousness.

He gets that trust is an issue: how to define it, earn it and keep it.

If there's one thing lacking in the conversations Canadians have about energy – when they do converse – with the sector it is trust. Trust, of course, is a slippery and elusive construct. It’s contextual and it’s contingent. It’s hard to develop and a devil to maintain.

Yet it's not that distrust of energy prevails among Canadians to any great degree; it's just that the small minority of voices opposed to oil and gas development has volume disproportionate to its actual representative size.

Why? Because our sector's opponents are better storytellers.

And they're telling Canadians not to trust the oil and gas sector.

Those opponents know how to tug emotional heartstrings. And they understand that storytelling – as an emotive experience that defines and shapes key narratives – confers a certain credibility on the teller.

Sadly, opponents are pacing ahead in the trust race.

What's such a narrative? Here's a key example: Canada's oil and gas sector is greedily grinding the environment under its heel in pursuit of corporate profiteering.

In the industry, we know it's far from the truth. Think of efforts like Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), which is intended to define a practical path forward in terms of balancing energy, the economy and the environment. And then ask: how many Canadians know about COSIA? How many of our sector’s own employees know about?

Our sector's stories don't rank materially in the way human beings search for stories that satisfy their need to know and feel connected to something that is emotively fulfilling. Put another way, for a sector as smart as we are, we haven't cracked that human algorithm.

In fact, given the absence of effective energy storytelling, the industry's opponents have rushed in to fill the vacuum with their stories.

But what if the energy sector's Chief Story Officer is 12 years old – and will live in an energy future exponentially more complex than our energy "present"? What if that CSO's mandate is rooted in strategies that focus on effective trust building: strategies that foreground trust as a future imperative to Canadian consensus building around energy and economic policy development.

Feick thinks it's possible.

Indeed, he's given a lot of thought to the idea.

Here's his rationale – and some of the innovative concepts he's brainstormed as a Canadian concerned about our collective energy future.

Feick believes the CSO concept could become a unifying national initiative to challenge young Canadians to think strategically through our energy challenges and opportunities – to take control of storytelling in a way that adults have to date proven themselves incapable of achieving.

So how to operationalize?

Think Canadian Idol, with an energy literacy twist – a national platform showcasing ideas and talent – in which the challenge is for young Canadians to help all Canadians define the stakes and consequences of not getting energy dialogues right.

Feick calls them “our living future.”

Feick also, of course, sees this as bigger than a fossil fuel-fuelled discussion, because he gets energy systems connect to each other in a complex and complicated dance of interdependencies and interconnections.

“We're a country blessed with an abundance of natural resources...and as Canadians, we own those resources and need to understand better how that impacts our quality of life. Our young people could be a unifying force around energy.”

Feick also believes that right CSO national program focused on youth would help Canada's global reputation – and it's a concept governments at all levels, corporations and other organizations could support. Its particular value would come from how it could inspire young innovators to pursue careers in energy.

Today's major energy issues – carbon pricing, innovation decline, energy systems relationships, climate change and pipelines, for example – have bogged the country in a morass of uncertainty. From the way they're being debated, it's clear we need to find alternative ways of thinking through complex issues that are pushing the country apart at a time when it should be pulling together.

Are stories capable of reversing this trend? Can trust-based narratives provide new focus on the way forward?

It's really up to that majority of silent Canadians; those ordinary Canadians who are resource owners who have yet to step up and take ownership of, and responsibility for, the resources that underpin the quality of so much of what they enjoy.

Maybe Feick is right. Maybe a 12-year-old can sort the adults out.

The Chief Story Officer Series:

  1. How the oil and gas industry can finally win the war for hearts and minds
  2. Building trust in Canadian oil and gas one tale at a time
  3. Empowering the voices of energy employees with tales of progress and sustainability
  4. Celebrate Canada's upcoming 150th birthday by sharing stories and constructive dialogue about oil and gas
  5. Earning the trust of Canadians through Canada150Energy

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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