The oil industry needs to use social media to take back its brand

Over much of the past decade, since the anti-oil movement set its sights on Keystone XL in an effort to slow the progress of Canada’s oilsands development, social media has been the weapon of choice for groups like, (formerly ForestEthics) and Greenpeace.

The war has been waged against several enemies—Northern Gateway, Energy East and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion plans carry the highest profile—but in all cases, environmental NGOs, some First Nations and engaged members of the public have used social media as the front, often using false and misleading information in their arsenal of messages.

A recent discussion paper by Policy Horizons Canada, a strategic foresight organization within the Public Service of Canada, suggests that consumers are taking a page from the NGOs and gaining more power to drive businesses’ sustainable behaviours. And oil and gas has not escaped this attention.

“A Greenpeace campaign lobbied Lego to cut ties with Shell over the company’s plans to drill under the Arctic,” it says. A film produced by Greenpeace and posted on YouTube received more than seven million views and influenced Lego to not renew a key contract with Shell.

Other groups, including and Break Free from Fossil Fuels, have used their respective online platforms to rally global support for large-scale anti-oil actions. Last year, the latter hosted a two-week campaign that touched six continents and engaged more than 30,000 participants to join the protest and post their experiences online.

In effect, these groups all used social media to hijack the oil and gas brand, says Cody Battershill, founder of industry advocate Canada Action and one of the most influential pro-industry activists currently using social media to respond to the anti-oil movement.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a coordinated plan using social media to organize opponents, influence decision makers and change the message in the media,” he says. “And their playbook is to oppose all pipeline projects.”

Battershill founded Canada Action in 2010 initially in response to NGOs’ attacks on the oilsands. Since then, the group has broadened its campaigns to take in natural gas, pipelines, jobs and investments, and oil and gas trade, and Battershill estimates membership at more than 350,000.

“We have different channels, so we can have different messages in different niches,” he says. “That’s what I noticed the other side doing—they would have five or six channels all sending out anti-oil messaging.”

The anti-oil messaging that is being spread by social media, Battershill says, impacts virtually every aspect of every business plan in the industry, and while industry associations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) have responded with social media programs of their own, nothing seems to be very effective in reversing the perceptions embedded in the public psyche by the decade-long anti-oil program.

“We’ve never established a baseline in the public realm about how great we are with environmental protection, with renewable energy, with clean technology, with pipeline safety standards, with the realities of global oil tanker traffic,” Battershill says.

“There are all these big questions and issues out there, and the other side just hammers away, and we allow it to happen. We allow them to create a false and misleading narrative, and they have really controlled our brand.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way, Policy Horizons Canada says in its discussion paper. By paying attention to social media, companies can adjust their business models so products, services, supporting networks and infrastructures respond to customer needs and have a smaller environmental impact.

“This transformation would not only improve industry’s public image but also reduce operating costs, resource shortages and prices. Businesses could incorporate sustainability analytics in order to collect and analyze data on a wide range of sustainability-related factors—including energy and resource use, greenhouse gas emissions, consumer usage and supply chain performance. This information could be used to generate insights businesses need to guide their sustainability-related initiatives and improve their overall resource efficiency,” the paper says.

Connie Van der Byl, director of Mount Royal University’s Institute for Environmental Sustainability and a professor in its Bissett School of Business, studies the use of social media in business and says the role of corporate public and media relations departments is slowly adjusting to the new realities of the power of social media. Corporate communications departments are now filtering, collecting and analyzing what is going on in social media, looking specifically for references about their companies and passing that intelligence up the ladder.

“That information is feeding into strategic decision making and thinking and planning, largely because it hasn’t been done in the past, and that has been a detriment to the organization,” she says.

And because the oil and gas industry hasn’t engaged much in social media over the last decade, the anti-oil lobby, she says, has a tremendous head start. Bill McKibben, co-founder of, has 244,000 Twitter followers; Brad Wall, Premier of Saskatchewan and perhaps the most social media savvy of industry-friendly political leaders in Canada, has 87,500; Mike Hudema, a campaigner for Greenpeace, has 62,100; Cody Battershill has about 13,000.

“A lot of the groups who are opposed to oil and gas have been active in social media for much longer than the industry and are very good at getting access to audiences more readily than an oil and gas company,” Van der Byl says. “My sense from my students on social media is that they are getting messages that are very heavily weighted to the negative.”

Enbridge is one company in the midstream space that is using social media to engage with the public, and its Twitter (nearly 34,000 followers across three channels, plus 8,300 via Spectra Energy) and Facebook (14,185 followers on two pages) have been most effective in providing opportunities for engaging its online audience, says Jamie Anne Vaughan, Enbridge’s digital communications adviser.

“We aim to engage in two-way dialogue, but we do have important information that needs to be proactively shared from our accounts, such as sharing important safety information,” she notes. “Our social engagement with stakeholders complements the work that our teams do in person across North America.”

While many oil and gas–producing companies have social media accounts, perhaps the most widely followed are the multitude of channels maintained by CAPP.

Chelsie Klassen, CAPP’s manager of media relations, says the association uses all the social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn—and all have “quite good traction” in getting CAPP’s various messages out to the public.

“We’ve been really successful in the Facebook world and with our corporate accounts on the Twitter handle,” she says. “We have been using them for quite some time, and yes, they are very strategic.”

CAPP’s main Twitter account, @OilGasCanada, has 43,000 followers, but just considering the number of followers doesn’t come close to getting a proper understanding of the kind of reach the association has with Twitter, Klassen says. Last month alone, @OilGasCanada registered 3.4 million impressions.

Its main Facebook page reaches more than 350,000 people every month and is the main source for highlighting public messages on natural gas or oilsands development.

And across all platforms, Klassen says, CAPP works with its members and other aligned organizations, like the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the BC LNG Alliance, Resource Works and Canadian Geographic, to amplify their messages.

One of CAPP’s more successful social media campaigns in recent years has been Canada’s Energy Citizens, which was launched in 2014 and currently boasts 85,000 registered members, nearly 180,000 likes on its Facebook page and about 5,000 Twitter (@Energy_Citizens) followers.

“It’s designed to give out information so that people feel comfortable to talk about the industry,” Klassen says. “It’s a way for them to learn and engage as part of a community with people who also support the industry.”

The grassroots nature of Energy Citizens means much of the information pushed through CAPP’s social media channels about the campaign is designed to empower ordinary Canadians and give them direction for connecting directly with politicians and other industry decision makers.

In 2016, an Energy Citizens letter campaign in support of the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline project, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion plan and the Pacific Northwest LNG project, resulted in 40,000 emails and other communications being sent to elected officials, including 10,000 to Members of Parliament and 20,000 to the Prime Minister’s office. And just last month, more than 10,000 Canadians used the platform to send a letter to the natural resources minister, Jim Carr, expressing their continued support for the Trans Mountain Expansion.

All three projects were ultimately approved in 2016, and Energy Citizens, according to a blog post on the campaign’s website, played a huge role in those approvals. “In an era where it only takes a few tweets and maybe a hundred emails to get a politician’s attention, the impact of several thousand can’t be overstated,” the post says.

CAPP’s metrics show Canada’s Energy Citizens reaches about four million people per month, Klassen says, as its members share information with their friends who then share with their friends.

“Having the ability to reach four million people a month from our Energy Citizens page is impressive—that’s a lot of people to reach out to.”

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