By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

When asked about the issue of “petroleum awareness,” a friendly shopkeeper laughed out loud. “Where is this petroleum for there to even be an awareness of it?” he asked? He went on to advise against discussing these matters in public, fearing that both the interviewer and interviewee would end up in the police station. Finally, he explained that people’s awareness of fuel related affairs consisted of the knee jerk reaction of hoarding fuel whenever a shortage occurred, only making the whole fuel situation worse.

A friendly hotel clerk from Southern Egypt explained further that normal people—the illiterate—know nothing about oil and gas in Egypt, even the mega-gas find recently discovered in the Mediterranean. The educated have heard about it, even in the countryside, but they have inflated expectations, thinking that the gas would be piped directly to their village homes within a short time. A bookseller—with a degree in physics—was more skeptical, insisting that he would only believe the estimates of the gas find if and when the Italian tax authorities began getting payments from Eni. A university graduate, while interested and concerned about Egypt’s nuclear plans and renewables potential, confessed that she found it difficult to follow the graphs and complicated equations and the technical issues concerning pollution caused by oil extraction at sea. She also admitted that she had no idea who the official spokesman for the petroleum ministry was, adding that with all the cabinet changes and the removal of fuel subsidies the man was certainly not going to be as popular as the spokesman of the military.

“Petroleum awareness,” of course, was one of the key issues inadvertently raised at Egypt Oil & Gas’ Optimization Convention by roundtable delegate Helmy Sayyouh, a distinguished professor at Cairo University. He has been calling for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) as a national priority for fifteen years to no avail, even after dozens of meetings and articles penned in English and Arabic. Egyptian oil companies have no idea his university has field-tested EOR studies ready for application. PICO International Petroleum’s General Manager Shawky Abdeen has complained in our pages before that the oil ministry has stopped organizing industry forums that allow energy experts, business figures and officials to raise new issues, drum up support for policy changes and make sure those changes are adhered to.

Egypt’s petroleum sector is one of the most underrepresented industries in the news in general. People simply are not aware that oil and gas brings in the bulk of Egypt’s FDI and is a guarantor of the country’s economic independence. Having a strategy to address this shortcoming is essential.

There are other hidden benefits to a media strategy, explains Ahmed Farid Mooaz, Country Manager and Director for Sea Dragon Energy. Not only will it advertise Egypt’s oil and gas potential abroad and help bring in investors, it will also help take pressure off of the petroleum ministry and entities like the EGPC during negotiations or when awarding concessions. This is because the general public thinks of investors as coming to Egypt to steal the country’s natural resources, a perception that has built up over decades. Educating the public on the nature of upstream oil and gas E&P would help correct this, he said.

A former Ministry of Information official, who prefers to go unnamed, revealed that his ministry has studies on media coverage of the different sectors of the economy—oil and gas included— but that the reports are only acquiring dust on a shelf somewhere. The studies were the product of individual initiatives and were of no interest to the ministry itself, embroiled as it was with its own budgetary troubles. Egyptian journalists likewise admit that they do not understand the technical terminology and the legal details of concession agreements and so do not pursue oil news in any depth. Egypt, then clearly has no petroleum media strategy. Devising one, however, demands more than regular press conferences on oil and gas finds because the media landscape has changed dramatically over the years. Everybody in the industry is catching up, not just Egypt.

Risks and Adventures

In the run up to the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, for instance, the secessionist leader Emeka Ojukwu actually hired public relations teams in the US and UK; not just to promote the cause of his oil-rich province but to make sure he was not portrayed as a “stooge for Western corporate interests,” said Kairn A. Klieman in her study in the Journal of American History. He did this by making sure not to mention oil in public.

This was in keeping with the tactics deployed by international oil companies (IOCs) themselves. Ojukwu had this experience because he was the son of a Nigerian millionaire who was formerly a Royal Dutch Shell executive.

The PR departments of most IOCs are there specifically to keep their companies out of the press and with good reason, revealed an anonymous source and former IOC employee. The wrong news item on a spill or a safety issue—or even kidnapping of oil officials in war zones—could scare off stockholders or drag the corporation into a lawsuit. PR departments work to centralize the flow of information and monitor everything, even emails. This individual has also seen financial documents with publicity stunts, even charity work, listed as “investments”—alongside drilling— demonstrating it was something oil companies expected a return from.

An Egyptian energy consultant who has worked on three continents noted repeatedly how oilmen like to keep a low profile to avoid undue attention over their projects attracting environmental protestors. But that was in the not too distant past. The new web revolution is changing everything; say Paula Rusnak, Teresa Dobson, and Natasha Boskic of the University of British Columbia, who—among other researchers—have studied the curious case of an online game that went viral on the Internet in 2007—“World Without Oil (WWO).” This self-professed ‘educational’ game was meant literally to train people to live without overpriced Arab oil in the event of another embargo like the 1973-74 October War oil shock.

People actually posted news items, videos and emails with advice on how to reduce their dependency on petroleum products. The game was a key topic at the 2nd European Conference on Games Based Learning in 2008 and even made its way into the Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics in 2014. According to consultants David Blackmon and Steve Everley, one of the major mistakes the US shale industry made was relying too much on lobbying and traditional public relations, since they have a “national” focus.

Social media, by contrast, has “geo-targeting tools that allow companies to tailor their messages to designated regions and to put updates in front of users in those specific areas.” Tools used all too effectively by local constituencies to block fracking legislation. Social media, it emerges, played a central role in drumming up support for the anti-fracking protests in Algeria. Now Facebook and Twitter are being used effectively by the Winnou El Petrol (where’s the oil) advocacy group in Tunisia, among other anti-corruption NGOs, with protest marches and petitions to release documents concerning the country’s overstated oil and gas reserves. The inspiration for this came from the activities of an international NGO, the Natural Resource Governance Institute.

Gulf Arab oil producers, who have a long and successful history with international PR firms, have learned themselves that money can’t shelter them from a hostile international news cycle; everything from oil prices to global warming. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) now has its own “Committee of Petroleum Media Specialists” that coordinates media efforts and trades information with intergovernmental organizations like OPEC and OAPEC (Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries).

Gulf producers even organized a forum on social media strategies in 2013 specifically to look into using social networks to promote everything from energy conservation to oil prices. According to Kathryn DeLia of the Oil and Gas Monitor, national oil companies in the developing world are also using social media to advertise their concession areas to attract new and higher-tech investments. It is still a bit too early to say if the GCC’s multipronged approach will work, but it is a wise precautionary strategy given that the moto of the abovementioned WWO ‘interactive’ game was “Play it—before you live it.” No wonder then that it won an Honorable Mention for the Prix Green award for Environmental Art in 2008.

Priorities and Platforms

Another anonymous source explained that the two pillars for any media strategy for a smaller petroleum producer like Egypt should be transparency and international prices.

The need for transparency should almost go without saying. During the whole period Sameh Fahmi was petroleum minister, Egypt’s foreign oil debts were kept hidden from public view until they accumulated into something too big to hide, bringing about the current crisis.

The necessity of fair prices is also evident. For decades, entire swathes of Egypt’s economy were receiving subsidized natural gas while these companies were selling off finished goods at international prices. People need that information to hold officials—and businessmen—to account. If the petroleum ministry does not take steps in this regard, social media activists will carry this out for the ministry, without any consideration for how foreign investors might react. Tunisia, again, is a concrete illustration of this, with advocacy groups focusing on gas pricing, royalty payments, auditing foreign companies, and even investigating contract terms.

Sadly the government-sanctioned shortcomings listed above hold true of much of the Egyptian private sector too. Its PR people are always on vacation or never seem to have regular hours; their phones often quite literally do not work. Many oil and gas companies don’t even list their numbers to begin with, in directories or on the Internet.

Those few officials who were eager to speak complained that they were understaffed and suffer from budgetary constraints and so cannot afford to hire PR firms or organize events themselves, let alone send people to take specialized media courses. As for the internet, a solitary Facebook page with a few links was the most they could muster. Extra constraints are placed on joint ventures in the form of ministerial approval before making public pronouncements, which is why they insisted on not being quoted by name. The oil price crunch is further limiting their options. Egyptian employees working with IOCs or Gulf Arab companies operating in Egypt also commented that official pronouncements had to be cleared by head companies in their countries of origin.

The private sector, moreover, will not promote such daily energy-saving practices like car-pooling or public transportation or cutting down on carbon emissions, argues the former IOC employee cited above. Even a developed country like the US pursues “educational” goals through such bodies as the Energy Information Administration (EIA). It is not enough for the state to implement laws, he explained. People had to know that they could make a difference.

It’s Possible in Egypt

Fortunately Egypt has more allies than generally thought of in the information game. A new media category that has gained traction amongst oil companies is “Science Communication,” says Dr. Naila Hamdy, head of the Journalism & Mass Communication Department at the American University in Cairo. Here scientists and other technical experts—freelancers or with specialized agencies— are employed specifically to clarify technical terminology to the press and counter claims on the Internet. They even help clarify technical matters to their own shareholders, and play a role in upgrading a company’s investment profile by finding scientifically like-minded partners.

Energy expert and petroleum engineering professor Dr. Magdi Nasrallah heartily endorses this concept. Another avenue worth pursuing is the educational function served by “industry associations,” says Lauti Nia Sutedja, the current Head of Information and Socio-Cultural Affairs at the Indonesian Embassy. The Indonesian Geologist Association (AGI), she explained, played a key role countering media rumors that Papua Island was rich in uranium reserves.

Indonesia is a small success story, given that there’s no point in attracting foreign investors if you cannot deliver on promises. The Egyptian Association of Petroleum Geologists (EAPG) or the Egyptian branch of the Society for Petroleum Engineers (SPE) has the technical expertise and reputation to play a similar role, argues Dr. Nasrallah. Some reorganizing needs to take place first however, in order to match the coordination by the AGI with the Indonesian authorities. A young petroleum engineer explains that he is listed with the Egyptian Engineers Syndicate, not a separate specialized outfit for petroleum engineers, while the syndicate itself has no regular channels of communication with the petroleum ministry. This is where social media can be a force-multiplier, to cite Kathryn DeLia again, as oil companies are increasingly using web forums like LinkedIn and Facebook to bridge the generation gap when it comes to job recruitment for company projects.

All these different players—not to forget universities and research centers—could work with the oil and gas sector to manage Egypt’s energy mix for the coming years. But this process will only work if the country’s citizens are informed about it beforehand, and a media mix is called for to kick start the process.

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