Case Study: Oil and Water: An Integrated Campaign Turns a Slippery Controversy Into a Two-Way Conversation

Company: ConocoPhillips Agency: Fleishman-Hillard Timeframe: 2006-2007 Within the last 10 years, skyrocketing gas prices coupled with a climate in crisis have caused a precipitous drop in national consumer confidence toward the oil and natural gas industry. From 1998 to 2005, that favorability quotient dropped 20 points and was deemed to be even lower than the tobacco industry--not a positive feat to brag about. By 2006, as consumers began pressuring Congress to enact laws that could hurt the industry's ability to deliver energy supply, it became increasingly clear to energy giant ConocoPhillips that the American public wanted to be involved in the energy conversation. Thus, the company sought to develop and implement a communications effort that would create a dialogue with civilians about the energy challenges facing America. The result was a "Conversation on Energy" (COE)--an integrated campaign featuring a nationwide community meetings tour of 33 small and midsize markets, complemented by media relations, advertising, digital communications, community relations and leadership platforms. First Things First As is often the case, research was integral in the preliminary planning of this campaign. A national opinion poll conducted in advance of the program showed that ConocoPhillips had the lowest awareness and favorability of major oil and gas companies. The poll--which consisted of likely voters with an over-sample of opinion leaders--also showed that Americans wanted more complete information about the challenges faced by the energy industry, as well as the steps being taken to address these issues. They also wanted to be involved in discussions to plot a path forward. A follow-up messaging poll further shaped an integrated program that focused on a broad array of solutions, from improved technology and increased efficiency to development of alternative sources, including biofuels. To make sure ConocoPhillips' messages around this spectrum of topics would be on point, the team conducted a series of focus groups to gauge the effectiveness of ads focused on the company's efforts to ensure energy supply to meet the needs of future generations. But because other energy companies and the American Petroleum Institute were employing their own outreach programs, ConocoPhillips had to design a unique solution. With energy issues touching a broad spectrum of Americans, it wasn't a surprise that research showed energy security for America's future was a timely issue that transcended all demographics. The team wanted a program that would allow the company to tell its story and provide a forum for regular people (and the company) to have an open, two-way discussion about energy issues and solutions. But they needed assistance to execute all of these components successfully. Enter Fleishman-Hillard Dallas. "The company made a decision that they wanted to change the way they communicate with the public," says Stephen Morriseau, ConocoPhillips' director of strategic media and outreach. "Because ConocoPhillips is a lean organization, we knew we didn't have the capability in-house." According to Richard Mullinax, SVP and senior partner of Fleishman-Hillard Dallas, the agency got involved in the program as a result of an RFP it received in May 2006 from ConocoPhillips. After participating in a couple of pitches to the company's communications team and management, Fleishman-Hillard was asked to join the project in June 2006. Smells Like Team Spirit Collaboration was key to achieving the programs goals, which were to: Position ConocoPhillips as a credible voice in the national energy debate; Build a foundation of trust among issues-involved consumers; and, Positively differentiate the company as a responsible industry leader that is open to new ideas and that adds value to the U.S. energy policy and to the country's economy. In 2007, the program would have a rigorous schedule of 30 events. Each event required six to eight weeks of planning, including researching and securing a third-party co-host (typically from a major university), moderator (usually the university president, dean or provost) and unpaid panelists from community-based organizations. The centerpiece of each tour stop was an evening town hall meeting customized for each community. Strategic messages concentrated on four themes: energy diversification, energy innovation, energy efficiency and environmental protection. "All of [the town hall meetings] had a unique character to them based on the region of the country, whether we were in a producing state or were in a state that didn't produce but consumed energy," says Mullinax. "We found high levels of interest in both producing and non-producing communities." Through the community town hall meetings, ConocoPhillips and Fleishman-Hillard's approach was broad and inclusive in nature. With oil and gas industry favorability at an all- time low, ConocoPhillips and Fleishman-Hillard recognized that the program must emphasize transparency. The town hall meetings featured a moderator and two ConocoPhillips executives, plus local or state experts representing one of each: renewable energy and energy efficiency, business and industry, and the environment and conservation. The majority of each meeting consisted of an unscripted question-and-answer session with attendees; anything related to energy was open for discussion. Attendance ran the gamut from 100 to as many as 400 per meeting, with several key national business and industry reporters also present. A comprehensive Web site ( was developed to provide community reports summarizing the discussion at each town hall meeting and answers to questions submitted after each meeting, as well as video highlights of select meetings, fact sheets on energy issues, an energy guide and a discussion forum. Meeting attendees received community reports and--if they granted permission to receive further communications--updates on the program and ConocoPhillips' positions on industry news and issues. Nearly 23,000 people received e-mail communications related to the COE program; four campaign e-mails were sent with a 25% click-through rate. The Web site received more than 33,000 unique internal and external visitors. The team also secured, planned and staffed high-profile, targeted CEO speaking opportunities with the World Affairs Council of Los Angeles, the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Economic Club. These platforms were used to announce major ConocoPhillips policies, including the company's call for a federal mandate to control carbon and the CEO's view of a needed national energy policy. Each event received significant media coverage and provided exposure to key business and community leaders on company policies and positions. Print, online and broadcast ads were placed in national publications and on national networks, garnering 241 million impressions. This national advertising effort complemented the public relations plan by focusing on energy security, environmental responsibility, energy innovation and diversification of supply--all key message components of the communications program. Downloading Results Market surveys following community meetings showed that engaging audiences through town hall meetings improved the target audiences' opinions of ConocoPhillips' reliability and credibility. Research findings also demonstrated that involving the American public in the dialogue helped them see the company as a trustworthy source of information and as a responsible industry leader that is part of the solution to meeting America's future energy needs. Also, a second national opinion poll conducted in August 2007 revealed a 19- point net gain in favorability for ConocoPhillips. According to Morriseau, the program has continued, but in a more scaled down iteration with smaller resources. ConocoPhillips execs are still speaking on energy issues to organized groups, such as Chambers of Commerce, across the country--but without the fanfare of multi-city town hall meetings. Certainly if there is a key lesson to be learned for the program's team it is the beneficial value of engaging people in transparent communication with companies like ConocoPhillips. "If you extend the public that opportunity," Morriseau says, "valuable dialogue can develop." PRN CONTACTS: Stephen Morriseau,; Richard Mullinax, Murphy's Law Of Success Murphy's Law dictates that if something can go wrong, it will. Such was the mind-set that drove the ConocoPhillips and Fleishman-Hillard staffers who worked on the "Conversation on Energy" program to be more flexible in both the planning and execution phases. Knowing that at any minute a snag could hang up the best-laid plans was important in keeping the project on track. For companies wishing to use "Conversation on Energy" as a template for a similar initiative, Fleishman-Hillard's SVP and senior partner, Richard Mullinax, and Stephen Morriseau, ConocoPhillips' director of strategic media and outreach, offer these best practices: Align with management's objective. "That sounds obvious, but nothing happens unless management believes it's going to accomplish their business objective," says Mullinax. Get good outside help. "If you're going to do something as big and elaborate as the [Conversation on Energy program], you need this," Morriseau says. "Something of that magnitude is not sustainable in the long term because people do have day jobs and they need to pay attention to them." Plan early. In fact, you should do it earlier than you think. This is critical because planning is going to "enable maximum flexibility because nothing works the same as you think it should," Mullinax says. Challenges Beget Opportunities Maintaining open channels of communication was also essential for the ConocoPhillips/Fleishman-Hillard dynamic to work effectively for the "Conversation on Energy" program. Daily briefings between the respective companies' communications and management personnel via conference calls and face-to-face interactions kept the planning from derailing. Yet with a program of this magnitude, challenges did abound--especially concerning logistics. "For us, [the challenges were] the internal logistics--coordinating groups of five or six people, all of whom had day jobs, to go into these meetings," explains Stephen Morriseau, ConocoPhillips' director of strategic media and outreach. "The success of this program was a testament to how dedicated this company was in achieving this program." Fleishman-Hillard SVP Richard Mullinax agrees, but also cites other challenges: the program's newness, its size and gaining the support of ConocoPhillips' C-suite execs. "It was a highly proactive program meant to reach multiple audiences across the country to engage in a discussion about the country's energy future," he says. "Because the program was so large, it was very complex. It required a high level of management support and participation. Top managers, including James Mulva, the CEO of ConocoPhillips, spent a significant amount of time guiding the program, while also meeting with small and large groups and media across the country for a year." There was also the question of whether the public would be receptive to this two-way dialogue, particularly when it would be emanating from a large oil firm. Fortunately for the team, the public was very much interested. ConocoPhillips and Fleishman execs learned this firsthand after they successfully conducted three pilot events in late 2006 to try out the premise.

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