The oil industry has a good standing and political power in Norway on its side, observes reputational expert Øyvind Ihlen. “But it’s nevertheless dissatisfied.”
Never good enough?
Reputation is defined in the literature as what people think about an organisation and how they expect it to act. It is an outcome of what the organisation has done and how it behaves.
That definition is also cited by Ihlen, who is a professor in the department of media and communication at the University of Oslo.
Among many other publications, he authored a book 10 years ago on strategic communication and reputation building by the Norwegian oil industry.
Asked why a good standing is so important, he says the belief is that this could contribute to better operational parameters, improved product prices and greater employee pride.
“It could also help to attract good new personnel and investors. So a positive reputation offers many upsides – which is naturally why people are so concerned with it.”
His 2007 book was an outcome of a major project funded through the Research Council of Norway’s Petropol programme on maintaining and developing Norway’s petroleum-related research expertise.
What Ihlen and his colleagues first and foremost observed – and found surprising – was the level of dissatisfaction in the petroleum sector over its reputation.
“We couldn’t quite understand why this should be,” he says. “When we looked at opinion polls and the industry’s achievements and compared them with other sectors, the oil business was clearly recognised as big and important for the Norwegian economy.
“Moreover, it had the political establishment on its side. But the motorway nevertheless has some potholes. One of these is a recurrent theme in Norwegian political and social life – the tension between centre and periphery.”
According to Ihlen, the division between Oslo and the rest of Norway has always existed and will perhaps persist for ever.
In the oil industry, it has fuelled an irritation that people who live in the “petroleum shadow” – in other words, central areas of eastern Norway – know too little about the sector and its national significance.
The professor points to a recent opinion poll from the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association which shows that four out of five Norwegians believe it is important to maintain the industry.
But this survey also showed that people in Oslo and its environs are more sceptical about the business – particularly young women in the capital, known as the “cafè latte” segment.
Since Ihlen’s book first appeared, one objection to the oil industry in particular has become much more prominent – concern over the climate and the environment.
He refers to a survey in Oslo daily Dagbladet this year, which showed that 44 per cent of respondents were willing to cut back oil operations to limit emissions and discharges.
“Everyone understands that the industry is extremely important for the Norwegian economy,” says Ihlen when summing up the two polls he cites.
“At the same time, they all know that this is a sector with associated environmental problems. Dealing with that dichotomy is the big challenge.”
He observes that the industry’s response so far has been to highlight its significance for value creation and prosperity – on a par with others who lobby for their business.
“In other words, they claim argue not for their self-interest but for what best serves society. Values and principles are deployed which are thought to command wide support, such as prosperity being good.”
“I understand the strategic considerations here,” says Ihlen. “The industry wants the debate to be about prosperity. If the discussion is about climate instead, it’s got a problem.”
An example he cites is sustainability – defined in terms of more pollution than nature can handle, and of an activity extracting resources which cannot be reproduced.
“However, the industry has tried to shift the definition of sustainability to clearing up after it has left an area, being as clean as possible and finding replacement resources.
“I don’t think that’s good, or clever. It’s better to discuss and acknowledge a problem than trying to sweep it under the carpet.”