Day in the Life

PPR oil and gas practice lead Tim Larcombe (back left) at the final investment decision signing ceremony for the Ichthys LNG Project in Darwin.

PPR oil and gas practice lead Tim Larcombe (back left) at the final investment decision signing ceremony for the Ichthys LNG Project in Darwin.

Managing crises and making a difference to local communities reap their own rewards, Professional Public Relations oil and gas practice lead Tim Larcombe told Courtney Pearson.

What does your role involve?

Public relations for the oil and gas industry is all about reputation management – the protection and enhancement of a project or company’s reputation among stakeholders. Success helps facilitate timely government approvals and maintains the social licence to operate. There are two elements to this: planning and response. Good planning creates the best possible environment for success. It also ensures that when responding to a serious issue or reputation threat you are organised and ready. When an incident occurs, time is suddenly compressed so you need to be confident you have your house in order. It’s important to identify from where reputation risks are most likely to come; prepare communications materials; train frontline staff and build strong relationships with key influencers in government, industry and the community. Good planning also allows normal business operations to resume as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, in order to grow as a PR operator you have to have experienced the intensity of a real crisis. We are forged in fire.

What is a typical work day for you?

Thankfully no day is typically like another. A lot of what we do is ‘front end loading’ – preparing plans, issues papers, key messages, question and answer documents and media training spokespeople. If you are managing a formal consultation program – a project environment plan for example – there are statutory obligations for consultation that you need to design, implement and record. You also need to understand your stakeholders. While legislation provides some guidance, you need to be sensitive to your community’s expectations for corporate performance and project design. Successful companies are those willing to invest in understanding their stakeholders and willing to modify their project plans to accommodate community wishes where possible. Where it is not possible – where the community’s expectations and the company’s business goals are in conflict – then you need to be up front and communicate these differences openly and consistently. Typically the community will understand and accept if the project provides demonstrative benefits to the community as a whole. This is your social licence to operate. The other critical element to what we do is managing for when the proverbial hits the fan. Thankfully in the oil and gas industry this is relatively rare, but it is a high risk industry and people’s lives are often on the line. The best operators are those who prepare for an incident through robust planning and training, including regular whole-of-company incident exercises that test all elements of the incident response system.

Why did you want to get involved in the oil and gas industry?

PR is about effective communication, which often means translating complex technical information delivered by area experts for a broader non-technical audience. Oil and gas exploration and development is complex and, for me, always interesting. As a high risk business, there are plenty of opportunities to manage difficult and challenging issues. Depending on the project, you can also make a difference to local communities through a well-designed community investment program. Good CSR programs are not necessarily expensive and support for community-initiated programs are typically the most beneficial and generate the greatest reputation rewards.

How did you get to where you are now?

Like many of my PR generation I was originally a journalist. Being a reporter and a PR operator are fundamentally different. Reporting is all about getting the story, and identifying the best angle in a story. Reporting tends to be reductive and susceptible to over simplification because there is limited space to tell a story. PR is also about communication, but PR must deal with the complexities of an issue, the nuances, and tries to raise the level of understanding of these complexities among stakeholders through clear and effective communication. As a reporter I covered courts and police rounds, then travel and lifestyle. After working in Singapore for two years on magazines I returned to Perth, deciding to try PR. My first job was with government – the Swan River Trust as their community relations officer. I then went to the Department of State Development and my first exposure to the resources sector. I then ran my own consultancy for a while before joining PPR, where I worked on property, mining and oil and gas clients, including in-house at Chevron. I was gradually acquiring more experience and knowledge about the oil and gas sector but was well short of being an effective PR professional. When the opportunity came to join INPEX it was a perfect match – they needed my broad communications and marketing skills and I needed a major start-up oil and gas development to complete my specialist training.

Can you tell me about your involvement with INPEX and the Ichthys project?

When I started as public affairs manager, INPEX was not well known within government, industry or the wider community. The company had just announced it would build the Ichthys gas plant in Darwin, which generated a fair bit of scepticism and surprise, especially in WA which had missed out on the onshore part of the project. It is rare that you get a blank canvas with which to work. The first task was to interview for the public affairs team – the people that would build the INPEX and Ichthys brands, deliver the community consultation program and establish and manage the company’s reputation. Typically you inherit a team, but here we could choose the people ideally suited to the task. It was the strength of the team that made the program a success as we achieved environmental approvals, announced long-term gas contracts, celebrated the final investment decision and commenced construction. As a Japanese company INPEX was open to learning how we do things in Australia. They melded the best of the Japanese business culture with Western business practices with a high degree of success. I worked closely with the Japanese executive both here and in Tokyo as well as with the highest levels of government, particularly in Darwin.

Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into the field?

A successful PR operator is proactive and adds value to what they do. Don’t wait to be given a job, ask to be involved. Once you have a job to do, then do it better than expected. If you want to be successful in corporate PR you have to embrace the difficult jobs, sometimes the dirty jobs. You are often called in to clean up other people’s mess. And that should be okay. Your role is to provide fearless advice, even when you may be the only one holding the position. If your advice is not taken, don’t take it personally. And don’t be too proud to step in and fix things up when it all goes pear shaped! PR is about relationships, and strong long-lasting relationships are your currency. You will draw on these frequently over time to assist you achieve your business goals. These relationships need to be nurtured as they are fundamental to your success.