Who Values What?

Public perception of an organization rises and falls based on the group’s actions and communications. However, government, industry and citizen groups gain and lose public trust based on different determinants within the oil and gas landscape. Government encompasses environmental and regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and state oil and gas commissions. Industry encompasses oil and gas companies and trade organizations. Citizen groups encompass special interest groups, non-governmental organizations and non-profits.

Trust and credibility, even as we examine them today, trace their history to Aristotle, who named three broad categories of rhetorical appeal: logos, ethos and pathos. Perceptions of trust and credibility fall along those three Aristotelian divisions: perception of openness and honesty (ethos), perception of concern and care (pathos), and perception of knowledge and expertise (logos).

With these determinants in mind, read the following hypotheses regarding the perception of the three types of organizations listed above.

  1. Demonstrating commitment openly and following through on promises is the greatest influence on the public’s perception of government. Regulatory agencies can increase their level of public trust by fully enforcing laws and regulations and aligning their positions in the press with their actions. [ethos]
  2. Demonstrating care and concern for stakeholders produces the greatest increase in favorability for industry. On the ground, it matters little whether drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology is the best in its class or that the site has an impeccable safety record if the public feels that their concerns with noise and traffic are not being acknowledged by the company. [pathos]
  3. Demonstrating knowledge and expertise provides the greatest increase of perception of credibility for citizen groups. By onboarding technical and academic staff and coordinating studies and papers, non-governmental and non-industry organizations can represent themselves as credibly informed stakeholders. [logos]

One of our experts expands and summarizes the challenge of establishing trust in communications.


Trust in Communications – Lee Ann Kahlor – The University of Texas at Austin

Today more than ever we’re presented with an overwhelming amount of information, on and offline, and sometimes from questionable sources. As a result, we’ve all because less trusting and more skeptical. This makes the task of communicating and developing trust with the public challenging. In the petroleum industry, companies, operators and regulators also work within complex political realities that further complicate how the public perceives the industry. The work we do as communicators is challenging.

This complexity has emerged over time. During the early days of petroleum production in the US, public sentiment was mostly positive. The focus was on expanding the growing industry. But environmental awareness grew during the 1960s and ’70s. Since the ’80s, the general public has become more involved in environmental policy. They join special interest groups and engage the industry and the government in conversations about energy, the environment and human health. The focus of these conversations is often on environmental risk, which amounts to perceived threats to communities, people and natural resources.

We’ve also seen a shift in whom the public trusts for information about risks. Government and industry have become less trusted and special interest and community groups more trusted. This shift has led to an entire field devoted to the study of public trust, source credibility and environmental risks, both perceived and real. Communication now plays a key part in negotiating trust and credibility with the public.

Credibility is not a new idea in communication. It traces its history to Aristotle, who introduced three concepts that he termed ethos, pathos and logos. We draw from those concepts still as we consider how people think about trust and credibility in the context of risk communication. Ethos is the perception of openness and honesty. The word “ethics” is derived from ethos. Pathos is the perception of concern and care. The word “empathy” is derived from pathos. Logos is the perception of knowledge and expertise. The word “logic” is derived from logos.

How can each of these be cultivated? Well, both ethos and pathos can be developed by using sound communication techniques. Establishing credentials and expertise and speaking in a clear and unbiased manner can develop ethos. Pathos can be invoked through empathy and acknowledging what moves an audience emotionally. What emotions are nudging people toward action? Logos is developed by appealing to the very human need to make sense of situations. Citing facts and statistics, invoking history and drawing analogies are all ways of building logos.

Organizations can rise and fall in public perception based on their actions and communications. It’s important to understand that the public views industry, government and citizen groups in different ways and judges them by different standards. Public expectations for an organization vary based on history, personal experience and what we perceive as the organization’s Achilles heel or weak spot. Industry’s weakness is often care and concern. For government, it’s openness and honesty. For citizen groups, it’s knowledge and expertise. We often expect them to prove those qualities to us.

For industry, people might not care whether a drilling operation in their community is using state-of-the-art technology, and they may not have any desire to tour the facility, but they might be very upset if they feel the operator isn’t sensitive to their concerns about increased noise and traffic. People want government to follow through on promises and enforce existing laws and regulations. If a citizen group isn’t credible and accurate in its statements, it won’t be taken seriously.

With all of this in mind, how do we move forward in building strong, trustworthy communication programs? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are simple but often overlooked steps that we can take to negotiate and better understand public trust and source credibility.

First, we need to accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner. This means involving the community early, before decisions are made.

Second, we need to listen. If people don’t feel like they’re being heard, they’re less likely to listen to what we have to say. Interviews, facilitated discussion groups, advisory panels and surveys are some of the tools that can be used to get community input.

Third, we need to be honest, frank and open. Short-term judgments of trust and credibility are based largely on verbal and non-verbal communications. Long-term judgments are based more on actions and performance. Don’t exaggerate or minimize risks. Try not to speculate. If errors are made, correct them as soon as possible.

Fourth, we need to coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources. Take the time to build alliances and partnerships with other groups and organizations. When possible, issue communications jointly with other trustworthy groups, officials, or local or national leaders.

Fifth, we need to meet the needs of the media, as they play an important role in helping our voice reach the people. Be open and accessible to reporters, and provide soundbites, graphics, or other materials as necessary. Provide background material on complex issues and keep interviews short and focused.

Sixth, we need to speak clearly and with compassion. Tailor your communication style to your audience. Technical jargon and acronyms are useful shorthand when speaking to a group of engineers, but it can be alienating to the general public.

Seventh, we need to plan carefully and evaluate our performance so we can learn from success and failure. Begin with clear objectives. Train your staff in pre-test messages. Identify important stakeholders and subgroups and tailor some of your communications toward them. Most importantly, evaluate your efforts and learn from any mistakes.

Whether you’re working with government, industry or community organizations, these strategies can help produce an informed, engaged and interested public ready to work toward improved understanding and collaborative environmental solutions.

Images: “Staircase” by Colin Tsoi licensed under CC BY ND 2.0