Soledad O'Brien: Energy Does a Terrible Job of Telling Its Story

Soledad O'Brien: Energy Does a Terrible Job of Telling Its Story
Emmy Award-winning journalist O'Brien believes energy companies need to focus their strategies on being honest and authentic in order to be successful in how they're portrayed in the media.

In 1987, before she became the household name she is today, Soledad O’Brien had the job of removing staples from the billboards on every floor at her company. It was the start of her career working in television and news and though she was the low man on the totem pole, she enjoyed working with the team.

O’Brien shared her humble beginnings as a journalist to a packed-to-capacity crowd during the KPMG Global Energy Conference luncheon keynote June 6.

O’Brien recalled one Christmas Day (all low-level reporters work holidays) covering a breaking news story in which a little boy who had gotten a BB gun accidentally shot his sister.

“We were all camped out like sheep on the family’s lawn,” she said. “Eventually the mother came out and wearily asked us if we would leave and of course we wouldn’t because we were already calling the story ‘a Christmas tragedy’ … the graphics department had already created an animated graphic…”

In retrospect, O’Brien acknowledged that she feels ashamed of how they covered that story.

“There was a rush – not to tell her story, but to cover a story – a sensationalized one,” she said. “But we weren’t going to talk about any data. We wouldn’t let the mother’s story or any reporting of the data get in the way of the headline.”

O’Brien often feels similarly watching the news of today.

“In TV news today, there’s very little diving into complexity and detail. We’re covering the character limit, we’re covering the froth of the story. That has led to a complete lack of understanding and increasing the polarization of conversations that we have today,” she said, adding that people are tired of the “screaming and yelling” on TV.   

O’Brien went on to say that part of the reason media fails today is because of a strong pressure fueled by social media to cover more salacious, dramatic, over-the-top stories.

“Why is the media so eager to pounce on [stories] that most people would say, ‘that’s interesting … now we can move on.’”

In her own company, Starfish Media Group, where she anchors a weekly syndicated political show, O’Brien changed the narrative by making data and evidence the star of the story. Her goal is to educate and encourage viewers, not report on sensational news stories.

She believes the energy industry would benefit from sharing their narrative differently as well.

“You guys do a terrible job of telling your story,” she said. “I think it’s hard to find stories about the energy industry and they’re often framed as ‘good’ or ‘not good.’ The conversation could be far more dynamic. There’s many more things you’re doing in technology and data that could serve communities that people don’t know about and you have to figure out how to communicate with media to have some of those stories told.”

The strategy for doing that should be multitiered and be based on relationships, honesty and authenticity, she said.

Instead of worrying about ‘looking good,’ energy companies should figure out how to answer questions transparently and honestly.

“I think there is a responsibility to report on the big picture,” said O’Brien. “We need more thoughtful stories in energy, stories that affect people. You’re in an industry that affects people’s lives. People want to be inspired, they want information and they want to learn something.”


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