Engage early and often, says energy sector boss

Politicians and industry leaders say the global energy sector needs to pay attention to its public image in the face of increasing opposition by clever activists and concerned communities.

International Gas Union President Jérôme Ferrier told the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) annual conference in Perth last week that the sector faced “hostile and uninformed criticism”.

As an example of the challenge facing the sector, Mr Ferrier showed conference delegates a propaganda video from an NGO called the National Sierra Club, protesting at the proposal to replace the San Onofre nuclear power station with ‘dirty’ gas-fired power stations.

APPEA chairman, Rob Cole, agreed, saying the sector faced a “big PR challenge from activists”.

He said APPEA was now playing a “public issues management” role alongside its more traditional policy advocacy role.

Mr Cole noted how the industry had adopted new technologies to carefully manage environmental impacts, but it now needed to pay attention to maintaining public trust and confidence.

Early communications and frequent engagement was now needed, as the industry began operating “in people’s back yards”, he said. The industry had to do a better job of improving Australians’ knowledge of the benefits of the industry.

In his opening address to the conference, Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett labelled the coal seam gas development on the East Coast a “PR disaster”.

Communities were unimpressed by the sector and were worried about the environmental impacts of its activities.

He said the industry was “technically brilliant but not good on public positioning” and that would need to change.

In SenateSHJ’s experience, the sector will also need to do a better job of listening to communities if it really wants to improve its public image and garner support for its ongoing development.

Raphael Hilbron heads SenateSHJ's energy practice.