The Colbert Report Finds Fracking Signs in Talisman’s Stakeholder Engagement

This post is part of a series on Stakeholder Engagement sponsored by Jurat Software.

Last week Stephen Colbert did a funny five-minute segment on the Colbert Report about “Talisman Terry’s Energy Adventure,” a coloring children’s book promoting the benefits of natural gas drilling. The publisher of this 24-page book is no other than the Calgary-based natural gas drilling company, Talisman Energy. That was true at least until the book caught the attention of the Colbert Report. After being ridiculed by Colbert, Talisman announced it will stop publishing the book.

Talisman’s coloring book is an example not just of bad or distasteful PR (some might even consider it greenwashing), but also of a bad stakeholder engagement. The mishandling of Talisman begins with the contradiction between the book’s content and their commitments to their shareholders and ends with Talisman’s line of defense that this is just an activity book for young children, so the media should cut them some slack. How Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Talisman put it? “It’s not the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s . . . just . . . a . . . coloring book.” Watch Colbert’s clip below:

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Let’s start from the “it’s just a coloring book” argument. A common mistake companies make is to devalue the importance of some of their communication channels with their stakeholders. This is exactly what Talisman was doing by not paying too much attention to the book’s content. After all, they probably thought, it’s just a book for kids. The rule though is simple – when a company is establishing channels of engagement with its stakeholders, it is held accountable for all of them. Nestle, for example, learned a very painful lesson about its Facebook page during the Greenpeace campaign last year against the company’s palm oil practices.

It’s also a matter of consistency. There is no such thing as a message that is just for kids. Nowadays stakeholders are expecting not just open lines of communications but also consistent ones. A company cannot provide different messages on different channels and expect to establish trust. Eventually the only result would be increased skepticism and confusion among stakeholders, and I’m sure this is not what Talisman was looking for when it decided to release a kids book.

What was Talisman looking for exactly? According to their spokeswoman, the book was created two years ago by staff at Talisman’s headquarters in Calgary, Canada, as a giveaway for county fairs and other community events along the Pennsylvania-New York border. The coloring book with its dinosaur hero explains to kids about natural gas and the drilling process. It presents both of them in a very positive way, saying for example that “natural gas is a clean-burning fossil fuel” or presenting relatively unchanged landscapes “before drilling” and “after drilling.” In fact, “after drilling” looks even nicer with the addition of a rainbow on the picture.

U.S. Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who cited the book last week during remarks before an Energy and Mineral Resources and Agriculture Joint Subcommittee oversight hearing, said the book “paints a picture of a magical world filled with smiling rocks and grinning animals.” The question of course is whether presenting reality this way is OK given that the publisher is an energy company? Do we really expect Talisman to refer to the controversy around fracking, mention any of the complications that can come from natural gas drilling, tell readers that France banned fracking or to ask them to check the “60 Minutes” report: Shale Gas Drilling: Pros & Cons?

Well, I guess the answer would be No. A company’s publication is not expected to meet the standards of an article in the New York Times and the company is entitled to focus on its side of the story. Yet, in this case, Talisman is a company that wrote in its latest CSR report under the subject ‘New Global Community Relations Policy’ the following:

“Our new GCRP marks an important evolution in our commitment to working with our local communities. In particular, when working with communities, we commit to engaging them in a fair and open discussion of our activities and addressing their concerns – this is the foundation of our new GCRP.”

Can anyone outside Talisman describe this coloring book as a “fair and open discussion” of their activities? Probably not. And this is not the only commitment the company seems to ignore in this book. Under ‘Sharing information about our shale developments’ the company promises: “We are committed to open and transparent communications on our shale operations, including full disclosure of fracturing fluids.” Transparency? Full disclosure? Not here.

Talisman’s spokeswoman told Fox News that “we’re going to take our company’s focus to where it should be…There’s two sides to every story, but it’s not something that we’re going to be disputing.” The subtext is more like ‘OK, we got it. We don’t want to argue with Colbert and make more noise about it. Just forget this fracking dinosaur ever existed.” It might be easy to sweep a small coloring book under the rug, but it won’t help the company to improve its stakeholder engagement. If the company really takes its stakeholder engagement as seriously as it claims, it better investigate why such a book was published in the first place and try to learn a valuable lesson out it.

Photo: An page from Talisman’s coloring book, Talisman Energy USA Inc.

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

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Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

3 responses

  1. You say that “A company’s publication is not expected to meet the standards of an article in the New York Times,” which is definitely true, but I think it obscures the fundamental question, which is, “should the company be making propaganda for children at all?” Could they have produced a coloring book — aimed at barely literate children who are obviously not fully mentally developed — that could serve their stakeholders’ interests? The book is a disaster not because it doesn’t discuss fracking in a fair and open manner, but rather due to its very existence. By targeting children, the company is already engaging in highly unethical and immoral behavior. Children are not capable of rational, thoughtful decisions and the company is banking on that fact by proselytizing them before they have any hope of even understanding what a fair and open discussion is. Obviously Talisman is not alone in this regard and it is a little bit unfair to single them out for this, but maybe it is time that part of the CSR discussion involve a recognition of the fact that targeted marketing of children — for whatever reason — is a violation of the principle of transparency and openness. After all, if your company is transparent, open, and committed to the triple bottom line, why do you need to brainwash children?

  2. The Green Movement produces coloring books galore on the wonders of solar and wind energy, pretending that these expensive, immature technologies can solve all the nation’s energy problems, when they clearly cannot now. These movements are creating a generation of brain-washed voters who simply don’t understand the issues and go for fairytale solutions. Which is worse? At least natural gas can actually do what its developers say it can.

    1. Your statement “At least natural gas can actually do what its developers say it can.”  reflects your grave error in judgement.  Just because a company does what it says it will do does not necessarily make it a good or trustworthy company.

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