“We should never forget that the oil industry, whatever its problems (and most of those are caused by bad government policies) is the single most vital industry in the world.”
This election year, America faces many crucial legislative choices in the oil/gas industry–and the PR strategy of oil companies will certainly affect the outcome.
What should oil company executives do to improve their industry’s reputation and secure their freedom to produce the lifeblood of civilization?
Unfortunately, the conventional answer is: pretend they’re not oil companies. BP’s John Browne some years ago infamously declared his company’s aspirations to be “Beyond Petroleum”–a slogan that obviously does not aid the industry’s desire for more petroleum drilling rights. (BP, to its credit, no longer trumpets this slogan, which defaults BP back to the implicit original, British Petroleum.)
Chevron’s mega-PR-campaign, “We Agree,” features 10 empty slogans, not one of which expresses pride in producing oil, and some of which are downright offensive. “Oil companies should think more like technology companies,” the campaign says–as if the ability to extract the greatest portable fuel known to man from once-useless shale rock 10,000 feet below the surface of the Earth is not a technological achievement.
This kind of posturing is self-defeating–no one believes that oil companies are anything other than oil companies. And it is a disservice to both their industry, which does not deserve flagellation (except when they rent-seek or engage in self-flagellaton), and to the American people, who desperately need to know the positive importance of the oil industry in their lives.
We should never forget that the oil industry, whatever its problems (and most of those are caused by bad government policies) is the single most vital industry in the world.
It has revolutionized agriculture; without oil and natural gas-based agriculture, we would not have the fertilizers, tractors, and transport that enable farmers to feed a record 7 billion people with the lowest malnutrition level in history. In other words, the oil industry solved world hunger. Wouldn’t that be profitable to point out?
The oil industry has revolutionized health care. Every hospital lives and dies based on just-in-time transportation of supplies, sanitary plastic devices and disposables, and petroleum-based pharmaceuticals. Without hydrocarbon-based synthetic pesticides, the U.S. would still be cursed with insect-borne diseases, such as malaria, which afflict much of the undeveloped world. Wouldn’t that be profitable to point out?
I could multiply the examples to every other industry, because every other industry benefits in proportion to the availability of cheap, plentiful, reliable, portable fuel–and that is what the oil industry works every day to bring to us.
The benefits of oil are all around us. If most Americans truly understood these benefits, they would surely have a different view of the industry. They would think more like 1920s best-selling author Bruce Barton, who said, “My friends, it is the juice of the fountain of eternal youth…. It is health. It is comfort. It is success.”
As the Founder and the Director of the Center for Industrial Progress, I make it my job to educate the public about the incredibly positive role energy and industry, particularly the oil industry, play in their lives. For the last five years, I have been giving speeches around the country, especially at universities, about how the oil industry produces the lifeblood of civilization, and about how we should value the industry and above all value its freedom to produce.
You might expect that audiences would reject this message and write me off as an industry shill. But the exact opposite happens–because the truth is on my side and I don’t hide it or apologize for it. I explain to them that I came to my conclusions after studying carefully the relationship between oil and human life over the past 150 years, and welcome them to do the same.
In fact, not only do audiences not run me out of the lecture halls, they get excited about oil production, and a little bit upset that they never learned this anywhere else. For example, most people are blown away when I point out how much of whatever room I’m lecturing in is made of oil–the insulation in the walls that kept us warm, the plastics in their electronics, the (synthetic) rubber in their shoes, the makeup on their faces, the glasses or contacts on their eyes, the paint on the walls, and so on. They’re excited because this stuff is genuinely exciting, and because we are never taught it.
To be honest, I was initially surprised by how positive a reception I got: “After leaving his talk, I understood how rich my life is because of oil”; “Mr. Epstein’s lecture made me realize that oil is a commodity which civilization cannot survive without and therefore its production is not only vital, but moral”; “I left with a greater appreciation of the role oil plays in my own life.”
But then I realized why: by focusing on the positive of oil and the choice America faced about whether to pursue that positive to the next level, or forgo it and suffer, it made them care about and even love the oil industry.
I like to call this method of education “Aspirational Advocacy,” because it means connecting our educational efforts with the audience’s deepest values and aspirations. It is both the most genuine and most effective way I know of persuading people; I am not aware of any other approach that gets people outside the oil industry to love the oil industry.
America should love the oil companies, and if they change their strategy, millions of more Americans will love the oil companies.