Neighbor 2 Neighbor
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Neighbor 2 Neighbor

Once considered a small ranching community “on the way to Jackson Hole, WY”, Pinedale is now home to significant energy development. It is here that national policymakers, energy companies, media and the environmental community focused their attention in 2004.

Paul Holmes

Once considered a small ranching community “on the way to Jackson Hole, WY”, Pinedale is now home to significant energy development. It is here that national policymakers, energy companies, media and the environmental community focused their attention in 2004. And it is here that Questar Market Resources put the concept of sustainable development to the test.

As a leading natural gas developer and domestic energy provider, Questar tested traditional thinking by promoting new solutions to an old challenge. Specifically, how to develop the energy resources we need now, while protecting the environment for future generations.

Through a comprehensive community outreach, public affairs, government relations and communications program, MGA partnered with Questar to achieve a seemingly impossible goal, securing a long-term permit for an innovative way to operate and develop energy supplies. The permit secured impacted not only the small ranching community on the way to Jackson Hole, but also became a model for how to conduct business in a manner that delivers on the promises of sustainable development and corporate social responsibility.

Questar holds 14,800 acres of land for natural gas development on the Pinedale Anticline, an area considered as critical habitat for mule deer, sage grouse and other wildlife species. Because this acreage is also classified by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Wyoming Game & Fish (WGF) as a crucial winter range for mule deer, Questar’s drilling activities had historically been restricted in the winter.

Questar’s expertise had shown, however, that these restrictions had unintended consequences, including: increased safety risks to employees; reduced ability to sustain workforce-training programs; an annual boom and bust economic cycle for the local economy; significantly increased traffic, dust and noise; greatly increased surface disturbances; and, an extended project life cycle caused by an inability to realize the benefits of new drilling technologies.

Questar, through careful evaluation, planning and implementation, developed a proposal and submitted it to BLM and WGF. This proposal demonstrated how year round operations could solve these unintended problems and create less impact to the wildlife and environment. Questar and MGA realized that, in order for these government agencies to approve the permit, it had to overcome the lack of trust historically found in the community towards the energy industry. Only by facilitating transparent and open dialogue with the people of Pinedale would this beneficial proposal be given the green light.

MGA started by facilitating a series of comprehensive strategic planning sessions with Questar representatives. These sessions were designed to uncover the company’s business goals, its plans for the Anticline and the benefits of its proposal. We then conducted message workshops to identify the most effective way to communicate highly technical information to general community audiences.

Finally, the PR team conducted a community audit to best understand the composition of the community, its influencers and trends, its sources of media and information and its historical relationship and attitudes towards Questar and operations on the Anticline. The end result of the planning process was the development of a community outreach and communications program that guided the team towards one simple, though challenging objective: secure stakeholder and regulatory support for Questar’s proposal in time for the 2004 winter drilling season.

The approach used to achieve the established objective relied on three strategies. First, to educate the project team on the needs of the community, while educating the community on the scope of Questar’s proposal. Second, to engage the community directly using effective and efficient communications channels. Third, to empower community members to play an active and constructive role in the development of Questar’s final proposal. By educating, engaging and empowering stakeholders, MGA and Questar were best able to cultivate an environment in the community that allowed the regulatory agencies charged with reviewing and approving the proposal to make an informed decision.

A cornerstone of this strategic approach was the “Neighbor 2 Neighbor” program. This grassroots community outreach effort operated under a basic premise that Questar representatives would meet anytime, anywhere with any stakeholder interested in the company’s plans for year-round operations. A communications infrastructure was established including a community information line and project email. Paid and earned media placements secured in local newspapers helped drive awareness about the program and communicate its purpose.

This transparent approach was instrumental in establishing credibility and trust within the tight knit Pinedale community and helped build long-term relationships that were essential in reaching the established objective.

MGA provided company representatives with messaging and training to facilitate effective and consistent communications with stakeholders in a variety of settings. This included in-depth media training sessions with Questar executives to ensure the company’s plans were positioned positively and accurately in regional and national media outlets, routinely monitored developments publicized in the local media and on related websites to ensure the project team was aware and could respond accordingly to community developments, in addition to promoting the Neighbor 2 Neighbor program, placed advertisements and secured by-line opportunities to communicate Questar’s history in the community, its commitment to sustainable development and the rationale and benefits of its year-round proposal, developed a series of fact sheets and brochures, and helped refine the content of technical presentations to ensure message consistently, increase awareness and alleviate community concerns about the company’s plans for the Anticline, worked with Questar to enhance their existing community-giving program in order to further demonstrate Questar’s commitment to the local community, managed and facilitated a series of community open houses and public meetings that allowed interested community members to interact directly with Questar project managers, submit questions and feedback about their proposal and collectively develop win-win opportunities.

This program component in particular demonstrated to the regulatory agencies that Questar was exceeding federal regulations for public involvement and was truly committed to changing its operations in a manner that protected the interests of the environment and the local community and MGA helped secure opportunities to brief local, regional and national individuals that would submit formal and informal opinions to the BLM and WGF. This included Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and other state and local elected officials, prominent environmental groups, local Chamber’s of Commerce and others.

By targeting these contacts proactively, Questar representatives ensured their objectives and the benefits of their proposal were clearly understand and were able to address any challenges or concerns directly.

Questar received BLM approval to proceed with year-round operations in November 2004. This result was made possible by the successful execution of various campaign elements that achieved or exceeded their goals, including: the Neighbor 2 Neighbor program actively engaged more than 500 people (nearly 30 percent of Pinedale’s population of 1,850) in less than 12 months, influential briefings resulted in key letters of support from the Governor of Wyoming, WGF, environmental organizations and elected officials, which proved critical to gaining substantial stakeholder support.

These letters were also submitted to BLM as part of their public comment process, Media training of Questar executives and a willingness to work with the media contacts resulted in numerous positive stories about Questar’s proposal on and in influential outlets including: Nightline, the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, NY Times and the Washington Post and consistent efforts to place earned media stories in local newspaper resulted in editorial support for Questar as demonstrated by the following quote: “But (oil and gas) operators look at environmental politics, community relations, and media interaction as nuisances, not issues of real impact to their bottom line. Compare this approach to Questar’s winter drilling proposal. Mr. Hogan (general manager) himself speaks to the media, and demonstrated political savvy not common amongst field managers.”  (Pinedale Roundup, 10/28.2004)

The concepts of sustainable development and corporate social responsibility require a triple-bottom line focus and a new attitude towards community relations. By using a strategic approach that educated, engaged and empowered stakeholders to be involved in an important decision that affected themselves and their community, Questar was able to achieve its financial objectives (Questar’s stock went up by 4 percent after its permit was approved), enhance its commitment to the society in which it operates and protect the environment and critical natural resources both now and in the future.

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