Managing a crisis of national proportions: Petronas speaks up

Petronas occupies a unique position in the oil and gas industry. Owned by the Malaysian government, it is tasked with the country’s oil and gas resources, and is the national oil and gas company (NOC), apart from also being an international oil and gas company (IOC). The company was recently positioned as the world’s sixth most profitable Fortune 500 company in the oil and gas space.

This renders the communications role for Petronas a high-stakes one, and a relatively complicated one at that. Stakeholder relations is core to its communications, over any other forms.

There are two hats its comms department must wear: one as an NOC and the other as an IOC, managing stakeholders for both.

“We are a national oil and gas company, but we need to act like an international one. We are expected to look at the socio-economic profits of the company. We need to pay dividends,” said senior general manager of group strategic communications for Petronas, Liz Kamaruddin, speaking at PR Asia 2014.

Because of its NOC role, it also has to contribute back to the community.

It is clear that managing internal stakeholders is what takes up most of her attention, and is her team’s biggest concern. “If anything goes wrong with the country it’s our fault, if anything goes right it’s not us. That’s the Petronas dilemma,” she said.

For example, petrol in Malaysia has been heavily subsidised by the government. When it decided to lift those subsidies substantially, the public was riled, with much of the blame falling on Petronas.

There was a rally against Petronas, with consumers looking to boycott the company – “even though the prices affected others like Shell as well”. “So what we did was to engage the stakeholders and government. We were part of the key communications plans,” she said.

Another incident happened where the company had an explosion in the long pipeline across Sabah and Sarawak that cut across the dense forest. This went viral through social media, and Petronas faced a crisis saying it was not aware of the situation. The team released a statement and got its guys on the ground level to do safety briefings and get down to the area to deal with the situation.

“We decided to build disaster-relief centres which are not available in remote areas where people don’t know where to go for help. We will get the guys down to train the people. The public just wants to know that you acknowledge that you have a problem – and you must always be available,” she said.

Her team consists of at least 140 staff for her comms team at the group level, she reveals, with everything under the branding and CSR umbrella for the group coming under her. The company is also investing in creating a training school for its comms team, which includes leadership training.