How a gas company powered up its social media efforts

Chesapeake Energy is responding to critics (now) and preparing for disaster (hopefully never).

A boater on a river in northeastern Pennsylvania—where Chesapeake Energy Corp. is producing natural gas—recently noticed an unmarked intake pump.

Water is used in drilling gas—OK, fine—but a pump without a buoy is a hazard that a boat or other watercraft could hit. So the irate boater jumped on the company’s Facebook page and posted an all-caps message demanding that somebody fix the problem.

Blake Jackson, social media coordinator for the Oklahoma City-based gas and oil producer, noticed it and connected the boater with a company official in Pennsylvania. Within two days, a buoy was in place.

The company not only had help in identifying a hazard and potential liability, it won over a critic in what Jackson likes to call “an opportunity for conversion.” The boater even posted a thank-you.

Chesapeake is seeking to change the way communications is done in an industry that has a reputation for being unresponsive and placing profits above the little guy, he says. Employing a strategy that is all the more important in the wake of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the goal is to engage individuals rather than try to drown them out with a behemoth corporate voice.

“We’re doing that in a very simple fashion,” says Jackson, who leads a national social media team that will soon grow to seven staffers, “and that fashion is, we’re actually there to talk to people.”

For a company that boasts it is the most active well driller in the United States, that meant a new approach. Here’s how Chesapeake did it:

Go to where the people are

When Jackson was hired last year, he didn’t just dump links to press releases on Twitter; he undertook a three-month study to find out which people were discussing Chesapeake, and where. There were investors, job-hunters trading notes and what Jackson calls “gas nerds,” who are interested in, say, natural gas vehicles. (About 90 percent of Chesapeake’s production is in natural gas.)

Another group caught his eye: those who had had a bad experience with the company or who were posting criticism online.

In addition to maintaining major presences on Facebook and Twitter, Chesapeake began seeking out discussions in blogs, forums, social networking sites and comments in newspapers. It posts its own comments and invites questions, promising to answer within a day.

Jackson’s team makes use of Google alerts, Twitter search and Radian6, a social media monitoring platform. To avoid being overwhelmed, its members prioritize. Media close to Chesapeake operations, for example, get priority.

“Every place where we inserted ourselves was a place where there already is a conversation going on,” Jackson says.

Localize the message

One thing became apparent: Many of the issues were local, and regional offices provided a companywide network of experts to deal with these matters.

For example, Chesapeake extracts gas in Dallas/Fort Worth, an urban area where noise is an issue. In rural Pennsylvania, there are few complaints about noise but serious concerns about the beating that roads suffer from trucks. The shale that Chesapeake drills in Shreveport, La., differs from the formations in Pennsylvania, drawing different technical discussions.

So along with its corporate “mothership” on Twitter, Chesapeake has established four regional accounts dealing with matters in Fort Worth, Shreveport, Appalachia, and Little Rock, Ark.

Thus someone in Shreveport doesn’t “feel like their comment or question is getting lost or muddled in all other noise happening over at corporate HQ,” Jackson says.

Prepare the staff

Though there is a national staff devoted to social media, Jackson has also trained communications experts in the regional offices. He shows them how to use Flip cameras and iPhones (rather than BlackBerries, which he says are not the best tool for social media).

More important, he also deals with a change in attitudes. The challenge isn’t in figuring out, say, how to manage a Facebook account; nearly anyone can master that. It’s in teaching communicators accustomed to traditional media to think differently.

“You may be answering questions 10 or 15 times per day, and these aren’t famous people, these aren’t legislators, these aren’t reporters,” Jackson says. “These are average people. Getting them into that mindset is the greatest component.”

Work-time use of social media is permitted only for the social media team, Jackson says, but Chesapeake has undertaken a companywide education initiative to convey the networks’ benefits for all of its 8,000 employees.

Plan for the worst—and the best

“Scenario planning” is essential for major companies as they prepare for any major news event, good or bad. For the social media team, there is even a media strategy for handling feel-good news, such as a gift of $5 million from Chesapeake’s CEO to Oklahoma City University.

“Anything we do know ahead of time, we plan for,” Jackson says, “and anything that could be happening ahead of time, we plan for it.”

Planning is most crucial for dealing with potential crises that a company hopes it will never face. The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster has led Chesapeake and other companies watching from afar to a renewed emphasis on preparing for calamity. Chesapeake is putting together a new plan amid discussions with its operations and security teams and an outside PR firm with which it consults.

The approach, Jackson says, is, “What is our Deepwater Horizon, worst-case scenario, and are we prepared to communicate about that?”

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