Big multinational oil and gas companies and their evolving communication strategies about energy transition: from the “strategy of doubt” to doubting their strategy
For several decades, the giants of the oil industry have occupied a central position in the global economy, meeting our insatiable demand for energy. However, the rising concerns about climate change have called into question the legitimacy of this industry and revealed its impact on our planet. In this context, large oil companies have had to adapt their communication with the aim of restoring their image, and thus remaining attractive and influential. Without ever being convincing.
Abandoning the “strategy of doubt”
For decades, major oil and gas companies have employed a communication strategy based on scepticism and, to go even further and quote their own detractors, pure “cover-ups”. This often meant denying the very existence of climate change or downplaying the role oil and gas activities played in it. This tactic, often described by observers as a “strategy of doubt”, has allowed them to continue to develop despite increasingly precise scientific evidence of climate change. However, this “doubt” is no longer permitted today: during the Davos forum in January 2023, the Secretary General of the United Nations strongly condemned this approach, emphasizing that since the 1970s, oil and gas companies were aware of the significant contribution of fossil fuels to global warming.
However, these companies did not wait for this affirmation to change their communication. For several years, they have been highlighting their commitments to the energy transition and their investments in renewable energies. Giants of the sector such as Total Energies, Engie, ExxonMobil, ENI or BP have announced carbon neutrality objectives by 2050 and communicate on the development of carbon-free energies – not hesitating, to seem more credible, to change their graphic identity or even their name.
The persistence of the “greenwashing” criticism
This posture of a “green and committed communication” adopted by major players in the sector can however hide a less positive reality, by masking actions that are sometimes harmful to the environment (exploitation of “c bombs”, construction of infrastructures, disregarding biodiversity etc.). Thus, Exxon and Chevron announcing in September 2023 a respective investment of 53 billion and 60 billion dollars in the exploitation of hydrocarbons, while Total Energies continues, come hell or high water, the construction of a very controversial pipeline in Uganda.
The ambivalence of oil players, but also of other actors, is well understood by the French: reluctant to adhere to speeches described as “greenwashing” by companies, 49% place their trust in the State rather than companies (34%) to solve the problem of climate change.
At the same time, after decades of directly attacking Total Energies, BP, or Shell, environmental protection associations are now turning towards companies that are much more sensitive to their image in the name of “duty of care”: banks, investors and insurance companies which are financing oil companies’ projects.
Thus, BNP Paribas, financier of Total’s latest pipeline project in Africa, has just been taken to court by three NGOs – Les Amis de la Terre France, Oxfam France and Notre affaire à tous – to have the bank’s responsibility recognized in the climate consequences of this project. An indirect attack with the hope that legal pressure on their financiers will force oil and gas companies to change their economic model. With the same objective, a group of students and former students of prestigious universities have just proclaimed their refusal to work for BNP Paribas and banks financing oil projects. A year ago, Total Energies was the subject of an identical initiative.
“Despite years of communication, we still have a bad image,” observed few years ago a disillusioned Christophe de Margerie former CEO of Total. Proof that if corporate communication can support, give credibility, and facilitate an evolution of a company’s economic model, it is powerless to conceal true absences of change within companies.
President of CLAI
with the help of Valentine Busnel, senior consultant, and Jean Cammarata, junior consultant.