Alberta Energy Regulator tells its story through brand journalism

You don’t need the fan base of an iconic cola maker to tell your stories in a readable fashion, a Canadian organization demonstrates.

It’s not hard to envision an audience for a brand journalism website when you work for a consumer brand with a worldwide base of interested fans and stakeholders.

Think of the soft drink makers, the purveyors of sports gear or the airlines whose planes everyone flies in (or is dragged off).

It’s quite another for an organization whose name isn’t recognized among many in its home province in Canada. Alberta Energy Regulator’s new site, reSource, offers an example for communicators who fear their organization might not be sexy enough for brand journalism.

“It’s possible to practice brand journalism and not be Coca-Cola or McDonald’s or a fun brand like that,” says John Ludwick, manager and editor-in-chief of content and publishing. “Even for organizations like us … it’s possible to practice it and still be your brand and still be able to tell thoughtful, interesting stories.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator is a regulatory body with a mandate to provide for the safe and environmentally responsible development of the province’s energy resources, the organization states. Its brief includes marketable bitumen, conventional oil, natural gas, natural gas liquids, sulfur and coal—a $67.1 billion industry in 2015, AER reports.

AER’s goal, however, is like that of any organization responsible for brand journalism: “We have a story,” says senior writer Cassie Naas. (Ragan Consulting also worked on the project.)

Even though AER operates at the heart of a multibillion-dollar industry, it is hardly a household name. Public opinion research showed that many Albertans didn’t even know that the organization existed, “let alone our name,” Naas says.

The way to get its message out, the organization determined, was by reaching people through a journalistic format.

Not boring news releases

“No one wants to read a boring annual report,” Naas says. “No one wants to read a boring news release. But if we frame that in an interesting story … then people are more likely to read it.”

Consider the story “A Day Like No Other,” which relates a day when a wildfire forced 80,000 people to flee their homes in Fort McMurray. Employee Chuck MacDonald was on the phone trying to organize the evacuation of staffers even as he worried about his family, including his daughter and grandchildren, who were visiting.

“In a little more than an hour, we went from a blue sky directly into a black sky, seeing flames and smoke everywhere. It looked like our building was on fire the way the flames were jumping up from behind it,” he told a reSource writer.

“As we went through town, past our office, all the power was out. It was the eeriest thing I’ve ever seen. The smoke was heavy; you could see ash on the ground. It was a really weird feeling.”

A photo essay, “Getting Down and Dirty for Research,” showed how AER and Alberta Health studied what substances are present in fracking operations and whether they pose a risk to human health and the environment. “AER staff slog in the muck to collect samples for study,” read the subhead.

A lexicon of drilling

In another piece, Naas writes about donning the gray coveralls and steel-toed boots of inspectors to visit a drilling operation with two inspectors. She describes “the loud hissing and powerful vibrations coming from the rig, the damp heat that hit my face as I entered the rig’s belly, and the smell of the drilling mud being pumped up from the earth.”

Word buffs will enjoy a sidebar at the bottom of the piece, which defies terms such as “fishing” (retrieving the debris that falls into a well), “kill” (no, nobody ends up with a knife in the back), and “mud” (drilling fluid).

AER reSource Soft started with a soft launch last summer, officially rolling out in the fall. It is pushing 100,000 page views, Ludwick says, with a healthy subscriber base for its newsletter.

“We’re getting traction out there,” he says. “We’re getting shared a lot on LinkedIn and Twitter.”

Much of this comes by way of employees. “They’re kind of our ambassadors,” he adds. “They’re the ones who share the stories on their social networks.”

The industry has also taken note. Ludwick gave a presentation about the site in October to a group of industry communicators, and newsletter subscriptions jumped after that. Interest is also strong in indigenous and rural communities affected by drilling and mining.

Milestones and cleanups

The organization has marked historic milestones, such as the largest oil spill in Alberta history.

“A well that was drilled in 1947 blew and became a giant flare in the night sky for many months,” Ludwick says.

“For six months, more than one million barrels of oil blew from the well and flooded nearby farms,” reSource reported. “Crews on site stuffed everything but the kitchen sink down the well in an attempt to plug it—bags of cement, cottonseed, saw dust, and even chicken feathers—with little success. It appeared Atlantic No. 3 was unstoppable.”

The story relates how the battle was won, as well as how the Atlantic No. 3 disaster “woke up the entire industry to safer practices in the oil patch.”

Though many communicators struggle to gain executive buy-in for a brand journalism strategy, Ludwick and Naas say the leaders get it. In a video interview shared by Naas, AER President and CEO Jim Ellis says it is essential to get AER’s story out in an international industry.

“It was important for us to be confident and comfortable for us to tell our story,” Ellis says. “Not to rely on the media, not to rely on social media. … We needed to be able to step out and tell our own story directly to our stakeholders, directly to the people that we’re interested in.”

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