Dave Samson, general manager of public affairs at energy company Chevron Corporation, and chairman of the association for senior public relations professionals, the Arthur W. Page Society, tells Gorkana about cutting-edge communications within a sometimes challenging sector.
When I started in the business, there were predictions that the world was running out of oil. Instead, today there is an abundance of accessible oil and natural gas due to the technological advances that have taken place over the last decade. In no place is this more evident than in the United States. While the US has always been a major energy player, its place in the world as an energy power has only gotten more significant as hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have unlocked previously unrecoverable shale oil and gas resources that lie within the country’s borders. America’s emergence as an energy powerhouse has boosted the country’s economy and reshaped geopolitics.
From a communications perspective, the most strident critics of our industry have a single shared belief – that fossil fuels are bad. I have a different view. Every aspect of our modern way of life – light, heat, mobility, mechanised agriculture – is directly linked to fossil fuels. As a result, there is a large gap between the rhetoric of our critics and reality. Energy development and economic progress are inextricably linked. Today, more than 2.5 billion people still burn solid fuels – wood, crop residues – to heat their homes and cook their food. Bringing cleaner burning sources of energy dramatically benefits people’s standard of living. My job is to close the gap between rhetoric and reality.
What makes Chevron unique or interesting, from a comms perspective?
Chevron is a company that matters in an industry that matters. We operate at the nexus of technology, commerce and geopolitics, which makes my job as a communicator extremely interesting. At the same time, I can’t think of a more exciting time to be a communicator because our profession is constantly evolving. The world is not static. We can’t be satisfied with the status quo. We must take the initiative to reinvent the functions we lead as well as ourselves.
At Chevron, we’re reinventing the public affairs and communications function by accelerating our move from being a proactive communications function to being a predictive one, using data and advanced analytics to better predict risks to our business and to get in front of those threats. With our access to data and new technologies, we can better identify, engage and activate stakeholders to take actions favorable to Chevron.
You’ve worked agency-side as well as in-house. How does in-house compare to consultancy work?
Both can offer interesting and rewarding careers, but they are different. In the agency, you are in the business of communications. When you are in-house, you are in the business of your industry. So, at Chevron, I am in the energy business.
Those who ascend to leadership positions within an agency are often those folks who excel at growing existing accounts, securing new business, offering superior client service or providing a unique capability that a client chooses to outsource. On the other hand, those who ascend to leadership positions in-house tend to be those who have a strong sense of the business, have a track record in helping to deliver business outcomes, and are viewed as valued advisers with influence within the enterprise. In the agency world, you are often rewarded for your individual performance, whereas on the client-side you tend to be rewarded for the collective contribution of your team. When I am looking to hire a senior communicator, it’s a real plus if they’ve had both in-house and agency experience.
What’s the biggest challenge that people working in PR and comms face at the moment?
No communicator is left untouched by today’s rapid pace of change. The challenge we all face is how to lead in an environment of constant change – continually advancing ourselves and the functions we lead. I tell people that if I were to interview today for my job at Chevron with the same skills and experiences that landed me the job, I would not get the job. It’s no surprise that the demands and requirements of my job today are very different, and while my earlier experiences serve me well, it has never been more essential to continuously expand my capabilities and the capabilities of my team. Those who fail to develop and grow will see their skills atrophy and their value regress.
How does the Arthur W. Page Society help professionals with that challenge?
At its most fundamental level, the Page Society equips communications leaders and their teams to lead in a changing and volatile world. Page helps us stay at the forefront of our profession, by giving us a terrific platform to interact, learn and share with our peers. In recent years, Page has explored a new model for communications, looked closely at the importance of culture and authenticity, examined how emerging technologies are shifting the power from producers to consumers and touched on new ways to engage stakeholders to generate advocacy at scale.
What’s going to be different about the annual conference this year?
This is the first time that we have held our Annual Meeting outside of the US. Our gathering in London is a deliberate step in our aim to globalise the Page Society and our membership. Page has an opportunity, as well as the obligation, to advance our profession by enlisting the best perspectives, best ideas, and best practices our profession has to offer. But we can’t deliver on this aim if we don’t build a powerful network of professionals across every region of the world, supported by the means to share and learn from each other, regardless of where we reside.
Our meeting in London at this particular time in our history, and at this time in the evolution of our profession, is of great significance to the Society.
The theme of the conference is Building bridges – in a divided world. What are the biggest divisions that you think communicators can help close?
Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly divisive and polarised world. But one of the best ways to bridge these divides is through effective communications. Effective communications is about transparency and engagement. It’s about listening, understanding and building trust. Often times, when we sit down with our critics and seek to better understand their views, we find that we have more in common than many might assume.
How do you switch-off from work in the evening or on the weekends?
I live with three generations of women – my 10-year-old daughter, Ava; my lovely wife, Josephine; and, my spunky mother-in-law, Maria-Carmen. So, away from work I have plenty to keep me occupied! There really is no off-switch.
- Are you working in an interesting or unusual PR role? Do you have strong views on the industry that you want to share with the Gorkana community? If so, please contact Emily Andrews.