Branding in Body Armour: Risk and Respect in Southern Iraq

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Forging an authentic and meaningful brand for major projects in complex and challenging regions is under-rated as a tool for managing risk – but not at the Rumaila oilfield in Southern Iraq.

The message was blunt. In the hot and dusty de-gassing station on the north of the giant Rumaila oilfield, the Iraqis who had gathered to share their hopes, dreams and expectations from BP and PetroChina’s contract to redevelop the field were clear. They wanted, above everything else, ‘to be respected’. And, they told me, they wanted ‘to make Basrah beautiful again.’

This was not a neat and tidy event – calling it a ‘focus group’ (or even a ‘meeting’) would imply a structure that, to be quite frank, it lacked. Outside, temperatures hovered around 50 degrees centigrade. Curious oilfield workers wandered in and out of the control room. Some were sceptical; some helpful and patient.; some angry. At times I found it difficult to keep track of what was being said. And I’m pretty sure my young interpreter was completely baffled about why on earth we were there.

The reason was one of the most extraordinary chapters of my career. Put simply, we had decided to turn the principles of stakeholder engagement inwards. To make Rumaila stand for what the Iraqis on the field felt it should; to build what the extraordinary team at Pulse Brands, who were working with me on this project, describe as a ‘purposeful’ brand.

At the time, stakeholder engagement in the oil and gas industry generally meant looking outwards to the communities most directly impacted by activities. To me, relegating the views of our workers to a secondary activity simply didn’t (and doesn’t) make sense. We had 10,000 people working on Rumaila, all of whom deserved ‘respect’ for what they had achieved in some of the toughest conditions imaginable.

You can’t embark on a project like this without an agency who is in lock-step with what you are trying to achieve. In Pulse Brands we found it. They also had the pioneering spirit, sensitivity and creativity necessary to work in a place where a one-man office was occupied by five people, where trips were ‘movements’, sites were code-names and where our plans were more often than not scuppered by colleagues with more urgent calls on bed-space and bodyguards.

We persevered and we improvised. We did not always hear what we expected. The emphasis on beauty over power and strength was a surprise. No one seemed willing to talk about the past – this was almost exclusively about a better future for future generations. Suspicions about BP’s motives were common, but less so than I expected. Disenchantment was less prevalent than determination.

The magic happened quickly. Returning to the de-gassing station with our interpretation of what they had told us, including seven different visual interpretations of the identity, was nerve-wracking – but the emotional response to one of the designs hinted strongly about what was to come. It was both a ‘symbol of growth’ and a ‘signifier of new life’, a ‘flower’ and a ‘teardrop’ and a ‘grain of sand’. Importantly it also had a strong affiliation with the logo of Iraq’s South Oil Company. It was respectful – and proved we were listening. Its adoption was signified by the round of applause which greeted its unveiling at Rumaila’s senior management meeting. Its success was immediate, and viral.

This is not my story any more. I left the Rumaila team in 2011. It belongs now to the team from Pulse and the Rumaila oilfield, who swapped their Kevlar and coveralls for dicky bows and penguin suits to pick up a stunning win for Internal Communications and Employee Engagement at the 2017 PR Week Awards in London last week.

Perhaps it was never my story – and perhaps that’s the point. From the start, it was the story of Rumaila - and the extraordinary people who work there.

Audire Comment: Companies and Conflict

Buried in the middle of Brian Ganson and Achim Wennmann’s insightful analysis of business and conflict[1] is a statement which will resonate as much with practitioners inside companies, as with those outside them. ‘There is,’ they write, ‘a significant disconnect between…..largely aspirational norms and standards, and experience on the ground.’

In the international policy arena this disconnect has hampered efforts to either control behaviour of or enlist support from those companies which are increasingly incentivised to invest in riskier countries and regions. Over-arching rules and structures dominate; varied local and pragmatic solutions are underplayed.

So why the resonance? Why does their analysis apply as much within companies as outside?

In a large part of course it’s because the corporate world mirrors that of the international policy maker. The stakeholders who influence decisions at the executive level tend to be those focusing on policy, regulation and state-building.  At a local level interests are more likely to prioritise particular local circumstances – conflict or otherwise – where life can be messy, dynamic and fragile. Those closest to the conflict are often a long way (literally and figuratively) from the boardroom.

It’s also a lack of experienced resources: as Ganson and Wennmann point out very few companies employ conflict resolution specialists and ‘peace is not an area for amateurs’. But it’s more than this. Many companies also neglect the ways in which a range of corporate activity (employment, training and supply chain management being three most obvious) might be brought to bear to contribute to stability and mitigate risk, consigning responses instead into a silo marked ‘CSR’. And in multi-billion dollar projects, scant regard can be given to interventions costing mere thousands – even though low-cost responses may be more effective in fragile contexts.

So if the problem at the heart of Ganson and Wennmann’s analysis has its mirror image within companies, might the solutions be similarly reflected? Partly. Without question, companies should also implement inclusive and fit-for-propose mechanisms that analyse conflict, interrupt its escalation, resolve grievances and put in place locally-credible plans.

But companies can - and should - go further:

  • They should also choose carefully, invest in and listen to, frontline staff. Crucially companies need to recognise and manage the particular tensions that staff recruited from, then expected to work in, conflict environments might face.
  • Corporate policy and decision-making frameworks should be flexible enough to respond to and accommodate local circumstance. They are enablers, not ends in themselves.
  • Companies should cast a wider net to bring in expertise to address problems of fragility. Yes, the conflict resolution sphere has much to offer. But so too do others: specialists in polling and communications techniques for example; or from particular geographies; or from sectors relevant to local economic circumstances.

This book gives the debate a valuable shove away from the proselytising of grand designs, and towards workable and effective locally-driven solutions – as much within the corporate sphere as outside it. If nothing else Ganson and Wennmann make a powerful plea for moving from ‘an obsessive focus on rules and structures towards adaptive systems.’ Without altering the centre of gravity towards local and pragmatic responses, the nexus between business and conflict will remain one that is long on diagnosis and short on cures. Cures. Plural.

 

[1] Business and Conflict in Fragile States: The Case for Pragmatic Solutions by Brian Ganson and Achim Wennmann, IISS 2016.