Questions of image

15.12.2010
Many Norwegians have an opinion on the petroleum sector – for better or worse. The industry itself undoubtedly feels that it meets much opposition. To establish if this is the case or if the industry is simply too sensitive, we have talked to an advertising guru, an opinion-former and a brand specialist.
  • Eldbjørg Vaage Melberg

 

Petroleum operations began on the NCS more than 40 years ago. Today, the industry ranks as Norway’s most important in terms of export value and government revenues.

It employs more than 200 000 people offshore and on land, and virtually all the country’s local authorities have residents involved somehow in this activity.

So far, value creation by the petroleum sector totals close to NOK 8 000 billion. But the media conveys the impression that it meets much opposition, not least from parts of the population.

That is certainly how the industry itself largely perceives the position. However, Oslo-based advertising executive Kjetil Try thinks it has a good reputation.

His achievements include a purposeful advertising campaign a couple of years ago for the Ministry of Education, which successfully boosted applications for teacher training courses.

In his view, most Norwegians are proud of the oil industry and know they depend on its revenues. “They see it as the equivalent of winning the lottery, even though growing numbers are talking about renewable energy and what we’re going to do when the oil runs out.”

He amplifies this comment by noting that opinion polls are not always reliable. “People give the response they believe to be politically correct.

“They say they’re concerned about the environment, but such attitudes aren’t reflected in voting. [Norway’s] green parties did badly in the 2009 general election, for instance. Environmentalism is OK as long as we don’t have to sacrifice anything.”

He says that people generally have no problem with sorting waste because it costs nothing. What concerns Norwegians most is security, health, education and transport.

If they are asked whether they believe the oil industry is harmful for Norway’s environment, many of them would undoubtedly say yes – but it is not certain that they mean it. The political correctness also conceals a need for security – and gratitude.

 

Self-centred

When oil industry personnel get together, they often complain that people know too little about their sector and its economic significance. Mr Try thinks they are a little self-centred.

“People understand that we’re as well off as we are because of oil. They associate the industry with prosperity. But they also know that the oil will run out, that the adventure is in decline.”

He does not think that this year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico means much for the way most Norwegians regard the industry. It was something which happened in the USA.

Norway feels itself to be much cleverer, but the incident also serves as a reminder that things can go wrong. The view is that BP and others are perhaps too greedy and not as careful as they claim to be.

But it would never have happened with Statoil, they think. “As a Norwegian company, it’s reliable, cautious and equipped with good technology,” Mr Try comments. “That’s what I think my fellow citizens believe – just as we feel safest flying with a Scandinavian airline.”

The way the industry is presented in the media reflects the nature of the latter, he claims. Because the sector has power, it comes under attack by journalists. Oil involves everything the Norwegian media love to assault – lots of money, power, environmental disasters and corruption.

So Mr Try feels the petroleum industry has no need to run an advertising campaign to inform the public about the significance of oil and gas for Norwegian prosperity.

 

Fresh air

Aslak Sira Myre brought a breath of fresh air to the Norwegian oil debate when he launched his book Masters and Servants earlier this autumn.

Born and bred in Stavanger, with a father who worked in the oil industry, he notes that negative attitudes to the this sector – both deserved and undeserved – are widespread in Norway.

Statoil serves him as an example. “The criticism of this company is welldeserved, not least because of its oil sand project in Canada.

“If you look at its build-up into a major company on the NCS, however, this has been a good thing. But everything is blended together. The industry deserves a critical eye.”

Mr Myre takes a negative view of the idea that the issues are presented in a one-sided way. The industry must do something specific to improve its reputation – Statoil could drop its oil sand project, for instance.

“I’ve no faith in quick media fixes. The industry has an image problem, which is created by what it does. To create a different picture of the industry, somebody must tell stories about it for good and ill. That’s what I do in my book.”

Mr Myre believes that local daily Stavanger Aftenblad is good at relating such tales – but nobody in Oslo reads the paper.

“Those who write in the capital’s press see no industry. They see immigrants and mosques on their way to work, so issues related to Islam become more important than Norwegian industry. Journalists write about what they see.

”He is convinced that people perceive the connection between oil and prosperity. Most actually have an exaggerated view of how much oil money is spent. Those who do not see the link are the environmental movement and certain politicians.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has affected Norwegian attitudes, and Mr Myre does not believe that the Norwegian Sea off Lofoten and Vesterålen will be opened to oil activity.

This view rests both on the accident and on lower-than-expected reserve estimates in these waters. “This isn’t a climate issue, it’s quite specific – they said it was safe, and it wasn’t.”

What he wants is to shift the Norwegian oil debate into new channels. The petroleum sector dominated the discussion before, but is almost marginalised in his view today.

The environmental debate drowns out the discourse on energy and industry, which is what Mr Myre has tried to shift in his book.

“When you represent the world’s largest industry, it’s not very becoming to stand on the sidelines and moan,” he notes. “If the oil sector is going to join in the debate, talking about the wonders of petroleum cuts no ice.

“It must have something significant to say – about power from shore, for instance. The industry needs to have opinions which go beyond being keen on oil.”

 

Complains

Brand specialist Peggy Simcic Brønn at the Norwegian School of Management believes that the industry complains too much.

“The oil sector has always been perceived as a whiner, which constantly accuses the other side of attacking it,” she says. “Many also believe that Norwegians should shut up and think carefully about what their lives would be like without petroleum.”

Ms Brønn thinks the industry occupies an almost impossible position in reputational terms. If it believes people are ignorant, this must be because they lack information. Are they getting any, she asks.

“And an even more important question is whether the opposite side feels part of a dialogue. My impression is that the oil sector is not good at listening.”

The 10 000-dollar question is what the industry can do to overcome the poor reputation Ms Brønn describes. She says that its first move must be to accept that the business is seen as dirty.

On the other hand, Norwegians clearly have no desire to give up the benefits which oil brings with it. Ms Brønn poses a series of questions she believes are neither asked nor answered.

One is whether the oil industry is ever proactive and promotes credible issues. Another is whether it listen to stakeholders and, if so, what examples can be cited.

Is it not the case, Ms Brønn suggests, that the industry expresses concern while people experience the opposite in practice. And what do Norwegians actually expect from the oil sector?

She believes most people in Norway perceive the connection between their prosperity and oil revenues, and accept this in a way – but feel themselves bound hand and foot.

“My students often discuss the hypocrisy of our government. It wants to be recognised as green but pumps up oil, talks about promoting peace but exports weapons.

“Such self deception isn’t sustainable in the long run. The fact is that Norway produces oil and will be continuing to do so.”

 

Disagreeable

Ms Brønn argues in favour of telling the truth, even though it is often disagreeable. That is far better than trying to create a picture which crumbles under close examination.

“A case in point is BP’s attempt to sell itself as Beyond Petroleum, and the fate of that effort,” she says.

Most people suffer a split personality over climate and the environment. Things close at hand, such as recycling waste, are fine, while the big issues have been left to green organisations.

The blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has involved a brutal realisation for many people that the oil companies need to be monitored with eagle eyes – including what they actually say.

This incident has gravely weakened the reputation of the oil companies, Ms Brønn maintains.

In her view, the Norwegian oil debate is characterised by concern about whether value creation and prosperity are secured at the expense of environmental improvement.

The question is whether both can be achieved, and whether people can rely on an oil industry which has so far proved that it cannot be trusted.

“If the oil companies claim they have goals other than profiting from emptying the reservoirs as fast as possible, I don’t see a proper effort to communicate that,” she says. “The industry faces a big challenge in convincing ordinary Norwegians.”