(L to R): Fred Cook, director of USC Center for Public Relations; Niel Golightly, VP of energy transition strategy at Shell Oil Co.; Brenna Clairr (BC) O’Tierney, an Annenberg alumna who is now the external relations advisor at Shell Oil Co.; Donald Paul, executive director of the USC Energy Institute
USC Annenberg / Brett Van Ort

Panel Discussion: 'The Future of Energy' and opportunities for communication professionals

Of the 7 billion people who make up the world population, 1.2 billion do not have access to electricity. Solid fuel—mainly wood and coal—is still used for energy by 2.7 billion people. The population is expected to increase to 10 billion by the year 2050, with a corresponding rise in energy needs.

That staggering data was presented by Professor Fred Cook, director of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, as an introduction to “Future of Energy: How do we power a brighter future for people around the globe?,” a panel discussion held at the Wallis Annnenberg Hall forum on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

“So the big question is: How will we produce energy for all of those people?” Cook asked the packed crowd. “And how do we do it without having a negative impact on the environment?”

Those were the underlying questions at the center of the discussion, which was moderated by Cook. The three panelists were Donald Paul, executive director of the USC Energy Institute; Niel Golightly, Vice President of Energy Transition Strategy at Shell Oil Company; and Brenna Clairr (BC) O’Tierney (M.A. Strategic Public Relations ’13), an Annenberg alumna who is now the External Relations Advisor at Shell Oil Company.

According to the panelists, one of the challenges facing the energy industry today is that although it's making a concerted effort to move towards cleaner energy, the transition can be painstakingly slow due to its scale.  

“They have historically transitioned from wood to coal, oil to gas, and now you're adding more diversity,” Paul said. “A change of something in that scale is going to take a while, and when it does it's also going to cause significant adjustments in the world around it because of that scale.”

Considering the need to address climate change, which Golightly described as "one of the primary drivers for the need and the impetus to change some of what that energy system looks like over time," and factors such as population increase and quality of life issues, the transition will not come easily.

“The complexity, size and scale of the energy system, just as it exists today, is pretty staggering,” Golightly said.

Another challenge facing the energy industry is that it does not have a reputation for being the most glamorous field, especially for budding communication specialists like those in the audience. 

“It probably doesn't make anybody's top-ten list,” O’Tierney said. “I think that's probably been true for quite a while.”

But that's part of the reason why the industry can be so fascinating and rewarding for someone from a communication background. According to O’Tierney, there is a need to tell a compelling story about energy to the people who may be skeptical about the industry. On the other hand, there is a need to help the culture of the company have a deeper understanding of what the people expect from them.

“Understanding how to tell a consistent story, with a highly diverse set of views of the industry, is part of the challenge,” O’Tierney said.

For some of the USC Annenberg students who attended the panel discussion, those challenges are what make the field so fascinating, from a communication standpoint.

Mary Goodwin (M.S. Public Relations '17) was encouraged to attend the event as part of Fred Cook's class on branding. “I've been exploring different industries that I'm interested in working in after graduation,” she said. “I think it would be interesting to be in more of a science or engineering space, just because there's a lot of opportunity there and a lot of transition happening, which I find fascinating.”

It was a family connection to the energy industry that attracted Bridget Winstead (M.A. Strategic Public Relation '18) to the panel. “My aunt does government affairs for Eastman Chemical out of East Tennessee. She works with a lot of plastics, so it's in our family,” she said. “I've always been interested in it. I never thought I would pursue a career in it, but this [panel] kind of enlightened me a little bit.”

For Caroline Emmert (M.A. Public Diplomacy '17), the panel was the perfect opportunity to learn more about an industry in which she already had an interest. “I really think that public affairs between energy and government are really interesting,” she said. “It's a really good business to be in, and it's fascinating with all the technology that's coming out, and how a company that is so based in oil can be changing its colors a little bit. The name is Shell Oil Co., but this was a green energy speaking panel—so having that kind of odd juxtaposition was interesting.”

While they are doing their part to address climate change and to keep up with the need for cleaner energy, Shell Oil is still considered a massive global corporation dealing in a seemingly outdated, industrial business, especially to the minds of millennials—a fact that was not lost on Cook.

“You see a lot of younger people today that's sort of this start-up, entrepreneurial generation—people want to start their own companies, do something for the greater good,” Cook said, as he directly addressed O’Tierney. “And when you think about Shell, you're one of the biggest companies in the world. For a young person like you, what's the attraction of being inside a huge global company like this? What excites you about that?”

O’Tierney made her case to the room full of public relations hopefuls, many of whom still uncertain about their career paths. It’s a feeling she knew all too well, as a former Annenberg student herself.

“I know for me and many other millennials, many of us want to work at a company that has the potential to make a positive impact and make a difference,” O’Tierney said. “Energy is not often put into that category, but I know for me that's one of the reasons why I joined Shell in the first place, because energy dominates every aspect of our society.”

“The industry really needs people like many of you in the audience with fresh ideas who want to make a positive impact, and who want to work in an industry that has the potential to really change the lives of people around the globe for the better,” she said. “We need strong communications practitioners, we need people across a variety of fields. It's really a global effort."