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Oil PR: Cleaning up the industry's bad reputation

Tessa Sandstrom says the best part of her job is being a part of history.

As a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, she has fielded calls from media in France, Switzerland, Germany, Japan and elsewhere.

"It's amazing to think that ... in 2008 there was a National Geographic article that just caused outrage (saying) that the state is basically dying out," Sandstrom said, "and now, five years later, (we're) in the international spotlight."

She's one of a group of public relations professionals working to combat what can seem like an ongoing fight against stigma and smear against the energy industry.

As the frontline defense, the industry's spokespeople try to connect with communities to help them understand -- and appreciate -- oil. Misperceptions and misinformation can range from the stereotype of the oilfield as a "wild, wild west" to stories about fracking.

"Younger people may not have time, you know, to watch the news, read newspapers," North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties executive director Vicky Steiner said, "and maybe they get more of their information from Facebook and social media today and friends share information, and if that information isn't correct, then maybe it leaves the wrong (impression)."

But that's more often the case outside of North Dakota.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there," Sandstrom said, "but largely we've found that North Dakotans are pretty open to listening to both sides, and in a lot of cases, doing their own research to find out a lot about the industry."

By visiting communities impacted by energy growth and distilling down the complicated industry, communications folks in oil and gas work to represent their companies clearly and positively.

Sometimes, plain old money is the best way an oil company can support a community it's infringed upon with wells and workers. But it's not as simple as writing a check. Companies work to find out what a community needs, and in some cases, that involves a lot of legwork.

"Rather than telling a community that we want to donate a new playground, (it is about) maybe finding out what they actually want is a summer reading program at the school and they need help funding that," QED Resources' Lynn Welker said.

Welker said to learn what's important to a place, she spends time in the community to find out who the official leaders are, but also the unofficial ones.

"We like to consider what is of cultural importance to where we operate," she said, "so pow-wows on the reservation or maybe participating in the fair or the rodeo."

Emily Snooks of XTO Energy said it helps to remind the public that the company's workers also live in the community, so the company has a stake in taking care of it.

John Roper, Hess Corporation's senior manager for onshore communications, said he tries to relay a similar message.

"North Dakota is home to Hess," he said. "Our employees live there. Their kids go to school there. They use the roads and they enjoy the outdoors."

Dumbing it down

The spokespeople of the industry spend a lot time simplifying.

"Many times in our industry, we can be kind of mired down in acronyms and technical language and et cetera because that's the world we live in every day," Welker said.

"We need to break this message down so it's palatable and so people can understand that."

Public relations professional Don Lokke said this technical nature can be problematic for oil companies.

"They're technical people, they're engineers and they don't warm up well to public relations or understanding how to manage their own image," he said.

Roper said boiling down technical jargon is one of the job's biggest challenges.

"It's a challenge to try to find that happy medium of what I can try to explain to the public and what makes sense to (the engineers,)" he said.

"The way that I would explain something if I were talking to my teenage son might not be quite as accurate as if those guys were explaining it to someone else."