It does matter what they think

July 7, 2014

By: Terri Larson

Perception is reality. This is a paradigm I face daily in my work at Enbridge, one of North America’s largest oil and gas pipeline companies. Negative perceptions make effective communication challenging and can make the difference between a successful project and one that doesn’t get built.

As an industry, energy transportation struggles to maintain a positive perception. Public opinion is formed through any number of sources. We know from experience that often interactions with Enbridge employees are well-received, especially when we are the first communicator. However, we’re not always the first one to their door, so to speak. More often, our key audiences are getting information about Enbridge and our operations from others with agendas that are anti-energy transportation and, in many cases, anti-Enbridge. Activist-driven comments are often the first comments people hear about pipeline companies, including Enbridge. It is not uncommon for an authenticity gap, a large difference between their expectations and their actual experience, to form before our company visits a community. As a result, we are challenged to reframe the context or discussion.

Enbridge currently has $36 billion of projects expected to come into service by 2017—all to meet growing demand for new energy infrastructure across North America. Every pipeline undergoes an extensive public approval process, and negative perceptions can slow progress and delay projects. To be successful, we must have a good reputation as a pipeline operator and strong relationships with our neighbors and communities along our pipeline routes.

Actively listening to our stakeholders has taught us some important lessons to increase our authentic engagement, or narrow the authenticity gap, with those audiences. The people who live and work near our pipelines, and who are obviously impacted by our pipelines, are most interested in learning about the jobs and economic stimulus we create in their communities. They also tell us that they do not want safety or the environment compromised. We’ve also learned that our most credible sources of communication are our own employees (their friends and neighbors).

Maintaining strong relationships and a quality reputation is important to us. Rather than telling people what we think they want to hear, we frame conversations to center around the issues that matter to them most, told by the people they most trust. By closing the authenticity gap, the people who live and work near our pipelines have an increased willingness to listen and openly consider the message.

Effective, authentic, open communication is our imperative and is essential for success. It is how we will change perception.

Terri Larson, APR, MBA is Director, U.S. Corporate & Business Communications at Enbridge, and is based in Houston Texas. She spoke recently at a Conference Board event on using FleishmanHillard’s Authenticity Gap to gain fresh insights into how the company can impact relationships and communication with its neighbors.