Interview with Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier, Communications Director at Total, following his presentation at the ‘Reputation War’ conference held in Paris on 17 January.

"Social networks help us to overcome the impenetrable image of the energy sector."

L’Atelier: First of all, why would a company like Total incorporate social networks in its communication strategy?

Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier: Total has incorporated social networks into its strategy both for corporate communications and marketing communications. This allows us to promote dialogue with our various communities on topical issues, as well as providing purely practical information. But that’s not all. On the reputation front, social networks really help us to monitor and listen to what’s being said about our company, our management and our overall environment. This allows us to react if need be, to add comments or correct assertions people make. But the most effective aspect of social networks is how they enable us to maintain a constant presence, feeding into dialogue about our businesses, our staff, their skills, and so on. This is how added value is really created, both on a day-to-day basis and in a crisis situation.

Would you say that social networks are good tools to use, especially in crisis management situations?

Absolutely. Total has good experience of this. I’m thinking in particular of the leak from our Elgin gas platform in the North Sea in 2012, and also when the transport drivers’ union blockaded fuel depots in South Africa in 2011. In both these cases using Twitter and Facebook allowed us to communicate honest, reliable and useful information in real time. We were able, for example, in the case of the blockade, to direct our customers to those service stations which had been able to restock with petrol. So we’ve seen how these tools can play a major role in crisis management and ultimately in the public’s perception of how well the company manages the crisis.

Where does Comms Director come in, given that it’s generally the Community Manager who has the social networks expertise?

Well, in exactly the same way as the press attaché and the head of Human Resources contribute their expertise, the Community Manager’s skills are essential in enabling the Communications Director to do his/her job as effectively as possible. The Communications Director’s job is the equivalent of the conductor of an orchestra; you have to get your team working as an ‘ensemble’. In fact I firmly believe that you need to surround yourself with people who are more skilled in their particular fields than you are. They can then input information and advice which helps you to pull it all together and take the right decisions. On top of that, you learn from them all the time.

From a communications viewpoint, how can you respond to the challenges inherent to the energy sector, whose reputation comes under attack from time to time?

The energy sector is in general stamped with an engineering culture – i.e. the industry possesses outstanding technical and innovative skills, but the communication reflex tends to be based on cold, rational argument.  So the public have got it into their heads that this is an impenetrable world. Meanwhile energy supplies are a major development issue, so the industry is often the focus of debate, not to say heated argument. I’m thinking especially of nuclear power and shale gas, where the language of debate immediately becomes highly emotional. Today our industry understands that it cannot dictate the emotions or the degrees of emotion that its stakeholders express, whether these are genuine or merely fabricated. We simply have to listen and make sure that our behaviour, the clarity of our statements and the tone we take in our dialogue all help to create a favourable reaction, based on trust.