The oil sand pioneers solved the scientific puzzle of getting bitumen out of the ground using a combination of technology and innovation.
Today, the industry faces a new challenge of getting its product market. But this problem won't be solved through engineering marvels. Instead, the solution lies in public relations and community engagement.
And the industry might be taking a page out of McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD) PR playbook.
How McDonald's silenced its critics
In 2012, McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD) Canada stood up to its critics.
For several years the fast food industry was besieged by ever growing criticism. McDonald's management was convinced that there were certain myths and misconceptions festering about the quality of the company's ingredients and how its food was prepared.
In response to this problem, the company devised a bold campaign to address these misconceptions head-on using transparency to put any negative rumors to rest. The company launched a series called 'Our Food. Your Questions.' and encouraged customers to share their concerns. In exchange, McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD) would provide clear answers.
Customers asked questions like 'Is the chicken meat real?', 'Do you use GMO ingredients?', and 'Are we supposed to believe your burgers are 100% beef?'
In one case a customer asked "Why does your food look different in the advertising than what is in the store?" McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD) responded by providing a behind the scenes look into how its food was prepared and styled before a photo shoot.
As reward for such an unguarded access the video has been watched nearly nine million times on YouTube. The effort silenced the company's harshest critics and turned bench-sitters into fans. The innovative campaign even earned McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD) the title of Marketer of the Year by Marketing Magazine.
Oil industry tries the same approach
Much like McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD), the Canadian energy industry had done a poor job in making its case for further oil sands development. Prior to 2010, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers' communication efforts were primary internal. This created an information vacuum for a well organized and funded environmental lobby to fill.
The industry has paid a heavy price for its slow reaction. The oil sands became the tar sands and TransCanada Corporation (NYSE:TRP)'s Keystone XL pipeline became the front line against further fossil fuel development.
Today, the energy industry is borrowing the same techniques McDonald's Corporation (NYSE:MCD) developed and applying them to their own communication strategy.