I had the pleasure of interviewing Don Bulmer, VP of Communication Strategy at Royal Dutch Shell, in January 2012 about how the company is approaching storytelling today. This article captures the essence of that conversation, and how Bulmer is planning to put an updated, human face on a complex global behemoth.

Long Planning Cycles Add to Complexity

The energy industry is complex; yet, the simplicity in how it is portrayed in consumer markets can be deceiving. Unlike high-tech, for example, this industry has long planning cycles.  It also spends billions in research and development to extract crude for processing. Consequently, it takes years to change technology because of the burden of investment.

That complexity spills over into other areas, such as marketing and reputation management.  “This industry has the allure of a brand with motorsports (the sexy aspect) at one of the spectrum; and the other end of the spectrum is completely controversial where we’re being vilified for being in Nigeria, for example.”

How does a company balance that polarity in market perception? How can it communicate simply without over-simplifying critical issues? Enter Don Bulmer, VP of Communications Strategy, the man tasked with bringing Shell into the new digital storytelling age.

Simple Storytelling in a Complex Market Is Anything But

When you’re known as an oil and gas giant with large retail footprint, it can be tough to clearly communicate the story of innovation.  “This industry has tremendous innovation from extraction techniques to community involvement and innovation in the communities Shell operates in,” Bulmer explains. “Additionally, people change jobs every 4 years at Shell. People have to reinvent themselves here. There is a lot of innovation that happens across the company, and those stories need to get out.”

Operational complexity, low public-trust (just check the results of the annual Edelman Barometer) and huge profits make storytelling to the consumer market incredibly challenging.   “It’s easy to tell simple lies and complex truth in this industry. The simple lie is the seal covered in oil. It’s powerful, but it’s not the full truth. Yet, it’s designed to evoke emotion. Because of complexity, we (as in industry) try to use rational market positions,” acknowledges Bulmer.  “However, when you take rational arguments to an emotional debate, you lose every time, right or wrong. How do you tell stories when you are a target for a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that successfully use emotional attacks?”

Bulmer talks about the need to tell stories in ways that people get, and can respond to. That means a fundamental change in how the company approaches communicating, such as succinctly taming complex issues and presenting them in a human way.  Shell has recently researched communication trends. One finding suggests that people will react to and share visuals, or infographics. “People will spend more time trying to understand issues visually than through words,” says Bulmer. That is a critical point that could benefit a company whose complexity is poorly communicated and understood by consumers.

According to Bulmer, Shell (and the larger energy industry itself) needs to change how it relates to people. “The audience at Shell has always been understood at a very high, abstract level – special publics and energy- concerned consumers. Beyond that, we don’t have deeper profiles that help us understand more detailed nuances of who these people are and what types of information they need. We need to understand what people care about, and change how we relate to them. We are in an industry driven by emotionality and not rationality – so we need to change perceptions on how we engage. People need to see that we “get” it. People need to know that human side.”

Shell is a global company, started over 100 years ago. Up until 7 years ago, it didn’t unify its businesses. Bulmer says it is heavily invested in every community it’s in today.  “We’re very active in education, safety, and security, for example, in these communities and that gives us credibility as a global brand.  How do we tell the stories of our local relationships in a global environment?”

Community and Social Media

Bulmer describes many social development groups at Shell where significant amount of profits go back to communities the company has operations in.  A large part of Shell’s new storytelling strategy lies in community involvement because its social development programs are community-driven. Shell hosts the groups; yet Bulmer insists the company does not own or manage them. Part of the answer, says Bulmer, is communicating the depth of our offline, community relationships, and relying, in part, on our advocates outside the company to credibly tell their stories in ways we cannot. “We need social media to show the scale and depth of these community ties.”

The irony isn’t lost on Bulmer. “We’re all about community in areas we operate in, and yet we haven’t used community-based tools to explain those human connections.  In Nigeria, for example, we have a big NGO attacking us for what we do. They have never come to see up close what we are doing there, however.  They attack us without even seeing the social development that goes on by these community groups that our profits go to. We need our communities to provide advocacy and support, and share their experiences.  It’s more powerful to have our advocates do this with NGOs, not us. In Nigeria, the community decides how to use the money, not Shell,” Bulmer states. “They manage the implementation of projects, not Shell.”  That is an important distinction the company hasn’t consistently communicated, and Bulmer intends to change that.

The company is working to get many of these stories told on Facebook in mid-February.  “This is a very strategic part of our storytelling moving forward. We need a relational platform on communities.  Our goal is to put a human face in every picture of what we do on a business to person level.  As business people, we can’t forget that everything we do affects people. Those stories can’t be vague and high-level. They have to be rooted in human beings.  We also need content “scale” and make sure content flows back from all of these communities. We’re trying to reduce overhead to get great content, reshape it, and get it out there.” Bulmer admits it’s a big job and one he relishes.

The Wisdom of Being a ‘Dummy’

Bulmer’s best advice on getting the most important stories told a in a complex industry? “Outside-in perspective always matters. I’m like the dummy the book was written for when I got here. That’s good – you need to be open. What you need is a totally fresh perspective on what people care about outside and inside the company.  Get out of headquarters and its ivory towers. Visit local communities, build relationships offline and with Facebook, and with other companies. Understand the local operations, and the people, and their concerns in the local communities.”

Bulmer says what blows him away about Shell’s culture is how open people are about sharing, growing, and learning. With Bulmer, the company has an open champion who can get the stories inside and outside the company out to the public in a human, open way. In doing so, the company hopes it can help the public gain a better appreciation for the complexity of its operations. And openness is critical for a large global company in need of changing its communications strategy to fit the social storytelling aspect of today’s new media age.

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