A new era in energy regulation: Alberta Energy Regulator launches in the wake of an epic flood

6 years ago

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There was far more to the launch of an energy regulator than a new name and logo. And as floodwaters rose, so did the communications challenges. By Kim Blanchette.



On June 17, 2013, a new energy regulator was launched in Alberta, Canada. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) was the product of a provincial government act that merged the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) and energy-related functions of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) into one regulator.
 
The launch campaign was massive, and it faced numerous challenges from the beginning. With new executive leadership and just weeks to launch, the AER’s Public Affairs team had to create a new logo, storyline, and communications materials for multiple platforms. To control the many variables, we crafted a 106-page communications strategy identifying objectives, strategies, risks, stakeholders, deliverables, tactics, and timelines. The huge task of rebranding, communicating the coming changes, building a new website, and replacing logos in over 70 different locations had to begin even though the AER’s identity was still being developed.
 
Days after the AER’s creation and the campaign’s launch, southern Alberta experienced catastrophic flooding that required a significant crisis communications response and forced the AER to close its head office in Calgary.
 
This is an overview of the AER’s award-winning campaign, which, despite a natural disaster impacting more than 700 of its employees, exceeded its objectives and successfully launched a new era in energy regulation.
 
Launching the AER essentially merged three strong regulators, which was done to gather all aspects of oil and gas regulation – including air, land, and water – under one banner. Another major challenge? While preparing to launch the new regulator, the ERCB, Alberta’s existing regulator at the time, continued its core work of processing more than 34,000 applications each year, responding to oil and gas incidents throughout the province, and ensuring that industry complied with complex regulatory requirements. 
 
Objectives
 
The communications strategy’s goal was to ensure that all stakeholders would: be aware of the launch of the AER, understand its role in regulating Alberta’s upstream oil, oil sands, natural gas, and coal development, and know how to contact the AER for emergencies or information.
 
Within the detailed communications strategy, the AER identified a number of measurable objectives. The higher priority objectives were:
  • to increase awareness of the AER and its role, from 44 per cent (survey conducted by the ERCB in 2010) to 50 per cent (a baseline target for future communications efforts),
  • to launch and position the AER as a new entity with significant differences from the ERCB, as measured by media analysis (75 per cent media coverage that is balanced or positive in tone during and after the launch), and
  • to increase staff awareness and understanding of the AER and its new governance structure and mandate, from 57 per cent (survey in October 2012) to 70 per cent by June 2013. 
The communications strategy also specified timelines and roles for everybody involved in the launch, ensuring that no detail would be omitted and that events were of a high quality and appropriate for the launch of such a high-profile organization.
 
Research
 
Drawing on more than a decade of quantitative and qualitative data to determine opinions and perceptions about the regulator, the AER conducted both internal and external research into the new brand and logo for the regulator. This helped establish an awareness baseline and determine what stakeholders expected from a regulator, including areas of concern, communications preferences, and desired attributes. 
 
The research concluded that Albertans who are familiar with the regulator expressed higher levels of confidence in how energy development is managed; however, this awareness was traditionally low.  Albertans consistently reported that they expected the regulatory to ensure public safety, enforce the rules, and protect the environment.
 
Our research also revealed that awareness of the regulator did not extend to the general public, and that Albertans did not proactively seek information about the regulator unless they were directly affected by oil and gas development. These statistics suggested certain challenges for launch communications, which needed to convey information about the new regulatory system to an audience unfamiliar with the previous organization. The AER primarily drew on in-house talent to plan and execute the launch. The Public Affairs team consisted of designers, editors, web publishers, communications advisors, media relations advisors, digital media experts, writers, and co-op students. 
 
Tactics
 
Leading up to launch, the team designed a new corporate graphic identity, logo, and storyline. With only six weeks until the June 17, 2013, launch, the final version was approved, and the team moved quickly to update the visual identity in over 70 different locations, including internal web content, letterhead, signage across the province, regulatory documents, safety equipment, and promotional clothing and items. Social and digital media played a large role in helping explain the new regulator; YouTube videos and a new Twitter feed were launched, and the new regulator updated its LinkedIn presence. Training sessions were held for frontline staff to enable them to communicate externally about the changes in a consistent and confident manner.
 
One of the most significant projects for the launch was the "road show," which included 13 launch events to officially open all AER locations across the province. Each event required AER-branded equipment, as well as communications materials such as news releases, speaking notes, and event scenarios.
 
With all materials ready and the regulator officially launched, heavy rains swept across southern Alberta, swelling rivers to unprecedented levels and flooding several areas, including Calgary. Flooding sparked failures in energy infrastructure and Public Affairs quickly turned its attention from launch preparations to crisis communications – all while over 700 staff were displaced from the Calgary head office as floodwaters spread throughout the downtown area. Public Affairs set up shop in its vice president’s kitchen and worked remotely to issue 11 news releases responding to flood-related incidents; it canceled or rescheduled 13 events, some of which were planned for that week.
 
Once the floodwaters receded and the crisis subsided, Public Affairs managed to reschedule the launch events for July 2013. By the time the rollout was complete, the Public Affairs team had traveled over 7,200 kilometres in 9 days to officially launch the AER.
 
Results
 
Although the southern Alberta floods overshadowed the launch, public opinion research conducted in late July 2013 indicated 38 per cent awareness of the AER only 6 weeks after the new regulator opened its doors. A survey of Albertans conducted in January 2014 indicated AER brand awareness was 61 per cent among Albertans, which represented a 17 per cent increase from the survey of Albertans in 2010. This exceeded Public Affairs’ objective by 11 per cent. 
 
In addition, media coverage throughout the launch was measured using the CPRS Media Relations Rating Points system (MRP). Of the 129 articles published throughout the launch, 87 per cent were either balanced or positive in tone, exceeding OPA objectives by 12 per cent. A separate media analysis report was crafted to evaluate coverage from the flood and subsequent oil and gas incidents. In one week (June 21–28), 53 articles mentioned the AER, of which 96 per cent were balanced or positive in tone. 
 
Recognizing the importance of internal communications, Public Affairs ensured employees were central to all planning and implementation.  Post-launch surveys indicated successful results, with 98 per cent of respondents reporting that the efforts helped them to better understand the transition to the AER. 
 
In addition to exceeding Public Affairs’ objectives, the launch was recognized nationally and internationally.  The AER received a 2014 COMM PRIX Award from the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management, two National Awards of Excellence from the Canadian Public Relations Society, and a Gold Quill Award of Merit from the International Association of Business Communicators. 
 
 
Author’s Details
Kim has more than 20 years’ experience in public relations and communications management at the provincial, federal, and international level.
 
Following her work with the Government of Nova Scotia, Kim joined the Government of Canada in 2000 performing a variety of communications roles with the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, including ministerial support, director of Corporate Advocacy Communications, coordinator for multidepartment pan-Atlantic and international events.
 
Kim has served as consul (Political and Economic Relations and Public Affairs) at the Consulate General of Canada in Seattle, representing Canada in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska. She then moved to Veterans Affairs Canada as acting associate director general of Communications where she worked the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the 65th anniversary of D-Day, and development and introduction of new legislation for allied veterans. 
 
Kim has also served as regional director of Issues Management and Communications (Atlantic Region) with the Canada Revenue Agency and as the communications manager for the Energy Resources Conservation Board prior to becoming vice president of Public Affairs for the Alberta Energy Regulator in 2013.
 
Kim serves as both a national board member and in Calgary as a local board member for the Canadian Public Relations Society. The AER Public Affairs team has been recognized by the Canadian Public Relations Society, the International Association of Business Communicators, and the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management for excellence in public relations.
 
 

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The Author

Kim Blanchette

Kim has more than 20 years’ experience in public relations and communications management at the provincial, federal, and international level.

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